Recognizing cultural stumbling blocks early

Manager's Handbook, The Prague Post, September 2004

September 22, 2004

I have always been fascinated by Texas’ larger-than-life reputation, not to mention the colorful characters who call the Lone Star State home. That’s why I couldn’t help but smile when a presenter at a recent business conference proudly introduced himself as coming from Texas.

I was also very curious to see how this Texas businessman would deliver his speech and how effective he would be at reaching out to the Czech audience. However, after complimenting Prague as being the most beautiful city in the world, he was never able to make much of a connection with his audience. In fact, his presentation, according to a Czech colleague of mine, alienated a few audience members by making them feel as though they were still “living in the jungle.”

Perhaps the biggest reason his presentation missed the mark was due to his lack of knowledge about the Czechs he was addressing, something that’s a common problem. Though most people working and living in a culturally diverse environment quickly learn to avoid embarrassing faux pas, relatively few make the effort to grasp the fundamental cultural differences that can really build trust and mutual understanding.

The concept of time is one of my favorite illustrations of this, simply because every culture relates to time in its own way. The Texan managed to prove this point very well. Having wrapped up his 90-minute speech, he thanked us all for having taken the time to listen to him by saying, “Though I always respect and appreciate someone for giving me their money, I feel even more indebted when they give me their time, as time is more valuable than money.”

The sentiment he was trying to express was clear to everyone. However, his remark was received with skepticism because most Czechs wouldn’t automatically make the connection between time and money. Moreover, I have yet to meet a Czech who would prefer to give me his money before he gives me his time. Time in the Czech Republic is not a commodity as such, and giving someone time out of your day is usually no more than a sign of consideration and respect.

A second cultural stumbling block the Texan encountered was when he finally ended his presentation with the classic American expression “God bless you.” The Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe. Therefore, the connection between God and the gentleman’s business presentation was difficult to understand. Nonetheless, it was valuable because it illustrated the importance of religion in the United States and how that aspect of life distinguishes America from Europe.

Relations to time and to God are only two cultural differences separating Czech and, in this case, American culture. Another very important consideration is the varying approaches both cultures take to family and work.

Czechs rank time spent with their families as one of their highest priorities, so it’s not surprising that a Czech would feel some resentment when a meeting scheduled to end at 5:45 p.m. drags on until 6:30 p.m. Since family is central to the lives of most Czechs, they may not be so willing to sacrifice time away from home in exchange for recognition at work.

An American, on the other hand, would be more likely to stick it out until 6:30 p.m. so as not to call into question his loyalty to the company. The prospect of a raise or a promotion plays a greater role in the American’s life and, therefore, he or she might be more willing to give up time at home.

That is not to say that Czech attitudes aren’t changing. Increasingly, Czechs are beginning to feel the same pressures that push Americans to put dedication to work at or near the top of a long list of other priorities. Naturally, money eventually plays a key role in any country or culture.

However, it is worth making the effort to understand that Czech values have very little to do with the materialism engrained in the American dream. It is also worth recognizing that quality of life in this country isn’t so much about what can be bought as whom to spend time with.

A deeper understanding of Czech values will make communication far easier and make earning their respect and trust a great deal quicker.

Karin is a business coach and a specialist in cross-cultural understanding, communication and team-building.