A German and an Italian had a meeting once



Recently I spoke to a now retired friend of mine in Glasgow. Years ago, when he was about to depart on his first business trip abroad his manager advised him to stick to “the 3 P’s”: be Polite, show Patience, and don’t discuss Politics.

The problem is, we still don’t agree on what ‘polite’ actually means in Europe. And it might become a real competitive handicap.

On September 7th 2012 former EC-President and Italy’s former Prime-Minister Romano Prodi spoke about the importance of a strong European infrastructure, if Europe wants to survive. Prodi made his comments during the Ambrosetti Forum, an annual international conference held on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. One of the things Prodi said was that

‘European nations can only compete with the Asia cluster if they work together.’

Prodi’s statement emphasizes that being able to effectively work together as different nations is not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘need to have’ if Europe wants to maintain a strong economic position.

Unwritten rules become deeply held values

We are all raised with ideas of how we are to behave in specific social situations. Through our parents, school teachers, peers we are shown how to behave and how not to behave. These unwritten rules become strongly embedded values that we are not even aware of anymore. Unfortunately, children in other countries are raised with different equally unwritten rules on acceptable behaviour in comparable social situations.

You can imagine what happens if two adults from different cultural backgrounds start working together in a team, approaching the same situation with different sets of unwritten rules, that they are unaware of. In the work place this may easily lead to misunderstandings, confusion, irritation and possibly even conflict. The negative effect on (team) performance and business results is easy to predict.

An example of a simple source of confusion and irritation stemming from a different perspective on time and time-management is the following, taken from: ‘When Cultures Collide; Leading across Cultures’, Richard D. Lewis.

A German and an Italian colleague agreed to meet up at 9 am. The German is ready to start the meeting at 9 on the dot. The Italian shows up at half 9 only to find an upset German colleague. The Italian is puzzled asking “Why are you so angry because I came at half 9?” The German colleague replies “Because it said 9 in my diary.” With truly Italian logic the Italian responds by saying “Then why don’t you write down 9.30 and we’ll both be happy?” Which of the two do you sympathise with?

In Germany it is very important to arrive on time for an appointment. Showing up late to the Germans is a sign of unreliability. Not so in Italy! Depending how far north or south you are, being on time means showing up 20 to 45 minutes late. There may be all sorts of reasons for this “tardiness”, a likely possibility being that they were still in the middle of a previous meeting. Finishing a meeting, and more importantly; with that building a human relationship, is far more important to an Italian than the time of a meeting.

Time is only one cultural dimension with different attitudes in different cultures. Other dimensions are, for example, organisational arrangements and communication patterns. These various dimensions were investigated by researchers like Fons Trompenaars, Geert Hofstede and Philippe Rosinski. Above mentioned Richard D. Lewis, another expert in the field of cross cultural issues, designed his Lewis-model that places a number of cultures in a triangle, showing how these cultures relate to each other. Each of the points of this triangle represents the extreme of one of three categories:

  1. Linear-Active cultures: such as Northern Europe where the general idea is that time is scarce and should be maximised through careful planning, doing one thing at a time, concentrating hard for a set period of time and then move on to the next scheduled item. Linear-Actives are mostly punctual people
  2. Multi-Active cultures: such as Southern Europe where people may also feel that time that has passed will never come back, but the best investment of time is to complete a human transaction, for instance a conversation with a business partner or a family member. These people enjoy doing several things at the same time. As a result Multi-Actives generally don’t value punctuality in itself
  3. Reactive cultures: mostly found in Asia but in Europe parts of Finland fall into this category. These people generally do not see time as a scarce resource. It is Monday today, it will be Monday again next week, and the best way to invest our time is to work from general principles. Reactives are mostly punctual people.

Of course this is a very simplified way of describing these three categories as there are many other aspects to consider. Regarding the topic of this article this brief description will nevertheless suffice.

Being culturally aware means understanding that there are huge differences in what “Just be Polite” actually means. It also means being open to the other person’s perspective without making judgments. The cultural perspective is usually not addressed in leadership development and team-development tracks. In my opinion this really is a “missed opportunity” because cultural differences not only exist when different nationalities are working together. Within each nation there are cultural varieties and within the same company each department may have its own sub-culture.

Going back to the situation of the German and Italian colleagues: Who do you sympathise with? If you are from the Northern European area you will probably relate to the German being upset; if you are from the Southern European territory you are likely to understand the Italian’s response to the situation. Both perspectives are equally understandable to different people and equally right to different people too. There really is no wrong here, each culture in itself has as much right to exist as any other. In order to overcome situations like this, there are three important steps to take:

  1. Keep an open mind for different perspectives that are at play (Awareness)
  2. Find out what these perspectives are, by listening carefully and by sharing your own perspective openly and honestly. Refrain yourself from any judgment and expect the other person to refrain from judgments too (Knowledge)
  3. Agree on how to deal with appointments and timeliness in the future (Skill)

During the aforementioned Ambrosetti Forum Prodi also said “If we do not build a European supply chain, in which Germany is linking with all other countries, we are lost. Even Germany’s lost,” he said. “This is the new reality.” Countries within the EU Communion simply have to join forces and work together.

Bearing all this in mind when listening to Mr. Prodi; the importance of cultural awareness is obviously a ‘need to have’. After all: German punctuality may just as well be called rigid and Italian flexibility can easily be perceived as disorganised. Who are we to judge?

photo: Flickr, Rasdourian

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About the author

Marianne Mol

Marianne Mol is the founder of Munro Coaching & Training. She delivers leadership and team development tracks that improve effective co-operation throughout the organisation. Marianne lived and worked in the U.K. for a number of years, where she gained a wealth of cross cultural experience through coaching team leaders from various cultural backgrounds with NCR Ltd. a global American corporation. Marianne is a Licensed Partner with Richard Lewis Communications, a leading organisation in the field of cross cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. Find Marianne Mol on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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