Watches and poppies – cultural taboos and the business of trust | Video

European CEO speaks to Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map, to shed light on how to break through the invisible boundaries of global business


Globalisation means companies have employees working together from all around the world, yet many managers have little understanding of how local culture maps impact global interaction.

European CEO: Erin, we see examples of how you can inadvertently offend people almost on a daily basis. For example, last week we saw the British Minister travel to Taipei, where she gave the mayor a watch. Now timepieces in China are renowned for being taboo because they signify time coming to an end. But surely you can’t really avoid this kind of thing?
Erin Meyer: Well everyone knows you shouldn’t give a clock to a Chinese person, but what I look at is not these superficial differences that are written down in a lot of to do and not do lists, but psychological differences, what leads us to feel that someone is trustworthy, how that differs from one part of the world to another, or how we give negative feedback constructively in different parts of the world. Those things have a huge impact on business success when we’re working internationally.

The first point of course is knowing that you’ve made the cultural faux pas, and then afterwards laughing about it

European CEO: So what kind of things are we looking at?
Erin Meyer: Like when you have a telephone call, whether you should put the findings in an email. So in the US, where I was raised, we believe in clarity, clarity, clarity. You get off the phone, you put it in writing, you recap it again. I had an Indian student who said to me, you know Erin, in India if we have a telephone call and we make some decisions verbally, that would be enough for me. If you get off the phone and you recap that in writing and you send that in confirmation to me, that would be a clear sign to me that you don’t trust me.

European CEO: So what should you do should you make a cultural faux pas?
Erin Meyer: The first point of course is knowing that you’ve made the cultural faux pas, and then afterwards laughing about it. I think that everyone today is open to cultural differences if we know about them.

European CEO: Do you think a lot of it sometimes is common sense. Another example, let’s stay with China for now, is when I think it was Tony Blair went to China and he wore a poppy which commemorated the war of course, but Chinese people took that as the opium war and took offence. But surely that’s just knowledge of the country and should be common sense?
Erin Meyer: Well maybe with something like that, yes. But let me give you another example. I was working with a team a while ago where I had mostly British people on the team, and then I had two people from China, and the British people were talking all the time and the Chinese were speaking seldom, and the British interpretation of that was that these Chinese individuals were shy and they didn’t have much to say. When I talked to them they said “we’re so frustrated in these meeting because the British just want to show off their knowledge and they send the agendas so late that we don’t have time to prepare and check with other people on our team.

So if you’re leading a global team and you just have a little bit of information about these types of expectations, yeah you can make some adjustments and that can make a big difference.

European CEO: Well are there certain cultures or countries that are more prone to take offence or harder to deal with?
Erin Meyer: I do think that bigger countries like the US or China, people perhaps have a little bit less awareness, but even in a country like the Netherlands which is quite small you can have a lot of problems.

European CEO: I used to live in China and something I cam up against quite a lot was official banquets where they would have the Chinese taster food, which is very different from Western tastes shall we say. When you go to a certain country where you’re trying to do business how much should you put yourself out to please that other person?
Erin Meyer: That really depends on your goals, but if you are trying to woo business then you might put yourself out a lot. I had a group of Americans a while ago who were bidding for business in China, focusing on giving a beautiful presentation, they prepared and prepared, and then they arrived in Shanghai, gave a perfect presentation and took the airplane home that evening. They found a little bit later that they’d lost the business to a Malaysian supplier.

That happened because they hadn’t understood that in China, trust is built much through what we call affective trust, meaning there’s much more of an emphasis on building a personal bond or connection. Instead of in the US where there’s a much stronger emphasis on what we call cognitive trust, so building trust through showing that you are competent and reliable.

So these types of things play out in things like banquets, but the question in the end is, did you make the effort to build the trust you need in order to get the business?

European CEO: How much do manners and work ethics really differ between ?
Erin Meyer: On the outside, often these differences are totally invisible, and people say to me in today’s global world I don’t really experience these things at all, but the most important things happen without us knowing them.

I’m American as I’ve said, but I’ve lived in France for the last sixteen years. One things that’s very surprising often is how a French person responds when an American boss gives them negative feedback.

So in the US, we’re taught when we give negative feedback that we should give three positives with every negative. I worked with this woman Sabine who had this new American boss, and he delivered what we thought was a negative performance review to her, starting by doing this positive reinforcement, and then moving on to telling her what he wanted her to do differently.

But in France people give negative feedback much more strongly and positive feedback much more implicitly. So she left that same meeting thinking, wow, that was the best performance review I’ve ever had. Neither of them recognised that cultural differences impacted them, yet it had a strong impact on their communication effectiveness.

European CEO: So what would you say are the main mistakes that corporations make when they’re working with international teams?
Erin Meyer: One of the big ones today is trying to categorise what is that culture like, instead of thinking about the relative differences and how they play out in a global organisation.

European CEO: So your advice for companies that lead teams in different continents, how’s the best way they can work together?
Erin Meyer: Think specifically not about what are the Germans like, or what are the Chinese like, but mapping out the difference between those different cultures so they can see where the gaps and the similarities are, and that can lead them to think about in which ways they need adapt in order to improve their effectiveness.