Is Your Culture a Communication Asset or a Liability?

France and GermanyAs I watched the French and German honorary consuls attend their annual conference to commemorate the anniversary of their friendship on January 22nd in Chicago, I couldn’t help but think of the long road it took the two countries to finally enact their 48-year-old treaty. No matter how many treaties and anniversaries we celebrate, working together effectively remains a daunting challenge for many international companies.

In general, I find the interaction and communication between the various nationalities to be fascinating. And living and working in Prague gives me a great opportunity to be frequently exposed to citizens from France, Germany and the Czech Republic.

History binds these three countries for the best today. As Europeans, they each have a specific role to play. The challenge lies in understanding each other and capitalizing on their strengths while recognizing that what is perceived as a weakness in one culture can actually be a strength in another one.

Regardless of the reasons, be they cultural or historical, these three countries approach communication from a different angle. The French are masters in the art of suggestion and indirect communication, which drives Germans crazy – they favor frankness and facts in order for everyone to know what to expect. And as much as the Czech people think that they like honest and straightforward communication, they often follow the French habit of not saying what they think is obvious.

When it comes to feelings and people, the Czech and the French both share the need to establish personal contact and relationships while working together whereas Germans have a more distant approach – business is not mixed with pleasure. The French and the Czech also need to get a feeling for the general mood first, business will be dealt with afterward. From the German perspective, these preliminaries are often a waste of time. Beneath the serious and often forbidding exterior of Germans and Czechs is a deep need to be well thought of and respected. Their feelings are intense – they don’t show much emotion, but they do feel it, intensely.

Charles de Gaulle once asked, “How can you govern a country that makes 365 kinds of cheese?” Following rules and regulations isn’t a high priority for the French. Procedures bore the French as they think they inhibit their creativity and impinge upon their individuality. On the other hand, a German will strive to abide by rules, as it helps them save time and increase their efficiency. Germans and Czechs want to be correct in everything they do and therefore hate to make mistakes; they become upset when they do, and often offer excuses or look for a scapegoat. German procedures work both as a management tool and a way to correct mistakes.

If on a day-to-day basis, these differences often seem impossible to overcome, many companies have successfully managed to have Czech, German and French employees work in the same company with great success.

How did they do it? Besides offering cross-exposure opportunities and training, a strong dose of knowing and understanding each other’s cultures, as well as a pinch of humor, will go a long way to help people of different cultures to work happily and successfully together.

Are you aware how your culture is influencing your communication?