Denmark has one of the most unique business cultures in the world. It can cause problems for a company’s net product and the country’s gross domestic product, as we prefer to trade with those who are like us — and so does everyone else. In this article you will be introduced to the field of intercultural communication — and the story of why it has always been important to be able to interpret social codes both in your own culture and in others.
It has been over 100 years since Emma Gad published the book Etiquette – About Dealing with People (Takt og Tone – Om Omgang med Mennesker). Most Danes associate the book with a slightly antiquated introduction to the quiet charm of the bourgeoisie. Something about being a flawless host or hostess. Something about holding cutlery properly and making polite conversation. What few probably know is that Emma Gad was driven by an ideal of helping the weak. Etiquette was a self-help book for those who were unable to traverse from one culture to another by themselves. If you were from the working class or from the countryside there was an overhanging risk that you would disturb the bourgeoisie with your ‘vulgar’ norms and manners. It caused unrest in the system.
Etiquette was designed to provide a toolkit for preventing a situation where people were running around like bulls in a china shop, and instead gave them the competencies — also rhetoric competencies — to succeed with their goal: trading with others. Emma Gad identified a gap critical to business in the way powerful stakeholders thought and communicated and came with solutions. In that way, her project served the same goal as this article — not that they are particularly similar in other respects.
The challenge of being able to communicate appropriately with stakeholders who have different ways of thinking than your own is exactly the same today. The difference between then and now is that this challenge has grown considerably. Now it includes the entire globe. Globalisation means that we are all constantly in connection with the whole world. The times where only particularly cosmopolitan people working in diplomacy, export and journalism could sit and watch the sunset at Raffles in Singapore enjoying a G&T have passed. Today, we are all out there. And we bumble around, falling over invisible tripwires, bumping into each other’s different world views and different ways of doing things.
But it does not have to be like that. Wider and deeper knowledge of intercultural communication can prevent clashes. It can make managers and their teams more confident navigators on globalisation’s country roads and streams. Whether you sit in Denmark and you are responsible for distance managing Ukrainians or Indians, or you use all the world’s airports to negotiate deals in person in Oslo or Oman.
Intuition and imitation are no longer enough
At Rhetorica we regularly solve problems for customers who have accepted that intercultural issues cannot be solved just with English language skills, intuition and ‘How to do business with…’ books. ‘How-to’ books are entertaining, and it is definitely important to know that you should always accept a business card with both hands in China, but that information is useless if you do not understand the rationale behind this gesture. When it worked in Emma Gad’s time, it was because there was a form of consensus that one was better than the other. That one type of behaviour trumped the other. It was just about learning the better kind of behaviour. Imitate what you need to in order to reach your goal. If you look at the world with a modern (post-factual, Western) cultural view, you understand that it is no longer enough to just copy ‘the other’s’ behaviour until you can send them an invoice.
These Romans aren’t crazy. They’re just not Danes.
The field of cultural studies nowadays is normative, like it always has been. It judges what is right and wrong based on what its research shows. In the past, it would typically have come to the conclusion that ‘our’ way of doing things in the West was the ideal. Unfortunately, this still affects the way we approach the global, multicultural world. Aspects of it are seen in arguments like ‘they can’t think independently!’ or ‘If you ask them to jump, they don’t ask why, they ask how high.’ It is poison for global co-existence to see each other in this way, according to today’s research. And it is poison for trade across national borders, which we need to master to be able to grow or survive on the global market.
Moving back and forth in order to meet in the middle
Survival of the fittest in the global marketplace over time often turns into a race to separate those who insist that Western civilisation reigns supreme from those who begin to meet other cultures on their own terms. Those who can mediate and reconcile will end up on top. For the Dutch cultural researcher Fons Trompenaars, reconciliation is a key term. In his work “Riding the Waves of Culture” he makes a case very worth reading for the importance of being able to move slightly in each direction to meet in the middle. A case for being able to adapt and harmonise based on knowledge of how we are different from each other and why.
When Fons Trompenaars explains his passion for his field of research, he points to the fact that he is Dutch; he is from a central European melting pot, and therefore he has Flemish, German and French blood as well as blood from former colonies running through his veins. Using his own example, he shows that it is possible to be just as confused by the culture of your neighbouring countries as by those on the other side of the world. But also, less confused, when you know why they act how they do. Researchers such as Trompenaars, Stella Ting-Toomey, Erin Meyer and Geert Hofstede research behaviour at the tip of the iceberg (behaviour visible to our surroundings, what we do in practice, our actions), to figure out what goes on under the surface; what our behaviour reveals about the basic assumptions we have about the world. It is these basic assumptions which subconsciously control our behaviour. They are our drivers, our inner operating systems. Our compass. Motor. Choose your own metaphor; that which cannot be seen but ‘that’s just what you do’.
There is a reason for everything
Social psychologists say that people do what they do for a reason. The reason is usually that it makes sense for them, even though sometimes they have forgotten why. There is no obvious rational reason for cutting down a beautiful fir tree just to put it indoors in 20 degrees to cover it with decorations, for it to die a slow death over the month of December. But many models have been developed to explain why we do it. If those who otherwise do not know us are aware of these explanations, they understand the otherwise unexplainable phenomenon of “a Christmas tree” much better. Or even the Danish concept of “hygge”. We do not act in this way to irritate, slow down, annoy or trick others. And neither do they. Social identity theory reminds us that, as a rule, we prefer our own culture, but that this does not make it automatically ‘better’ or ‘more correct’ than other cultures.
The difference between rules and relations
At Napica we do as research recommends: we provide a lot of information and help our clients think about the foreign culture in a constructive and informed way, and after that, how to communicate in new ways which reach their goals more effectively. We teach them to mediate based on a foundation of factual knowledge about conflicts with regard to, for example, understanding of time; we belong to the small part of the world who use a consistent, or monochronic, timeframe. A timeframe, where everyone is in agreement about how time is measured out. There is a surprisingly larger number of people in the world who live according to an ambiguous, polychronic timeframe; in cultures where being punctual or meeting a deadline is not important, or where an hour does not necessarily have 60 minutes. It is us in the West who are in the minority here.
Similarly, we tell our clients that it is impressive that Denmark is top of Transparency International’s list of the world’s least corrupt countries, but that also means that we belong to one of the strictest bureaucracies in the world. A much greater number of people focus on relationships and cut corners due to a fear of creating unbalance in the delicate ecosystem between people, more than they fear fines or jail. Or even death. That does not mean that paying under the table or breaking laws is necessary to trade with certain cultures, but it does mean that it is important to be aware of the fact that people do what they do for a reason. Not to be immoral, dishonest, or whatever else we whisper to each other when another business culture is too different.
The Swedes aren’t sensitive. They just have low power distance
We have assisted a Nordic interest organisation in getting Nordic interests on the agenda in the Nordic countries. You would think that it would be self-explanatory, but it was not. The goal was to smoothen out the collaborative process with better communication between each other. They were successful after 5 seminar days spread out over the spring, alongside individual sessions in personal intercultural communication. It started off with slightly crossed arms and people sitting according to nationality. It ended with Danes understanding why they provoke Swedes with their direct manners, and Swedes who understood that their behaviour centred around coming to a consensus is not a universal inherent part of human behaviour, but something uniquely Swedish.For the same reason, people from other cultures can find it hard to feel at ease. Similarly, the Finns did not particularly care for their Danish partners who, as they interpreted it, were falsely receptive with their ‘I hear what you’re saying’ way of communicating. When they saw how cultures differed greatly — for example, in the level of control wanted over the future — they gained the tools to handle the Danes and achieve the ‘Yes’ which they thought Danes otherwise have a tendency to try and evade.