Investing in foreign countries is fraught with difficulties due to cultural differences – a truism we all shrug off as ‘old news’. But it seems a truism we’d better heed more carefully, as a disproportionately high number of international projects fail or sales collapse unexpectedly. 

Particularly in terms of hierarchy, cultures often operate very differently. While Europeans are used to an open, collegiate approach to managing staff, Chinese managers often treat staff in a more authoritarian and distant manner. Adopting a European leadership style with Chinese workers usually ends up with the management not being respected or taken particularly seriously.

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This is similarly true with degrees of directness. For example, a German manager would ask their assistants to deal with a task and report back upon completion, while an Anglo-Saxon might phrase it as ‘look into it when you are getting around to it’. To German ears this does not sound like an instruction – certainly not one that needs completing any time soon or having any importance being attached to it.

Meetings are the most frequently discussed topic in this context. The proverbial Germans arrive punctually, sit down and start working through the agenda. The French arrive more or less punctually and ease into the meeting with a bit of small talk. Meanwhile, southern Europeans – and to an even larger extent Arab cultures – sauntering in at some point, delving into extended small talk and discussing topics seemingly at random or taking phone calls if not at the centre of the conversation.

If you throw in less-than-perfect language skills, or the fact that both sides use English as a common language, which means two steps of translation from sender to receiver, it becomes apparent why it is sometimes quite difficult to makes things work.

The most impressive places in this regard are international organisations. While for some countries, secretaries of state or ministerial experts are the ideal delegates (given that they are intimately acquainted with the facts), other countries would consider sending anyone below the rank of minister as an affront and assume insufficient importance is being accorded to the question. (This is presumably why we invented titles such as plenipotentiary: so that people from differently hierarchically structured cultures can meet on an equal footing.)

So what should we take from this? Don’t treat intercultural differences as a topic for sniggering jokes, for one – and try not to wreck our international organisations. They are some of the few remaining bridges across the cultural divides that actually work.

Martin G Kaspar is head of business development at a German mittelstand company within the automotive industry. E-mail: martin.georg.kaspar@gmail.com