Smart Moves: Reading the signs of the times

ON shaking hands at the end of a negotiation with a German or Frenchman, you might congratulate yourself on having reached a deal. But in their eyes the handshake may be no more than a polite leave-taking.

You might promise delivery of an order to a US customer on 6.8.1998. If you do not know that Americans put the month first when writing dates, your customer will query the non-delivery and be upset to find you won't do so for another two months.

Even such apparently universal gestures as the head-nod for yes and headshake for no have their exceptions. In Bulgaria and parts of Greece, Turkey and Iran, yes is signalled by a lateral head sway easily confused with the headshake. Some common gestures may not just confuse, but deeply offend overseas colleagues. Making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means OK to an American or Briton, money to a Japanese or zero to someone from the south of France, but in Malta it means a male homosexual, and in Greece is an insult.

Today a growing number of people work for organisations that are multinational or which serve global markets. How do you learn enough about the business cultures of those with whom you find yourself working to avoid making serious gaffes? However, there are some helpful books to guide you through the elephant traps of differing cultures.

A helpful starting point is The Cultural Gaffes Pocketbook by Angelina Boden. This succinct little book aims to help those welcoming visitors from overseas - and looks at greetings and courtesies, language, body language, attitude, preferences in food and drink, the type of accommodation they prefer, the type of leisure and entertainment they enjoy.

A more thorough description of the individual business cultures in the EU is provided by John Mole in the latest edition of his classic Mind Your Manners - Managing Business Cultures In Europe. This handbook gives a perceptive political and psychological profile of each nationality and looks at conventions relating to communication, use of humour, socialising, leadership styles, decision- making, formal and informal meetings, teams, and networking.

In Britain and Ireland, for instance, "humour is widely used to create a relaxed atmosphere, lighten tedium and defuse tension when things get difficult ... But in other cultures humour has no place at work".

He says that in northern Europe and even more so in North America, "a business relationship is seen as independent from a personal relationship". He continues: ''It is possible to walk into the office of a complete stranger with a proposal and begin to talk business. The further south you go in Europe and the further east you go round the globe, the more important it is to cement social and personal relationships before you can even start to work together.''

Another helpful book, Riding The Waves Of Culture - Understanding Cultural Diversity In Business, by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, further examines cultural diversity both between and within countries around the world. The authors describe seven key dimensions of business behaviour and how these combine to create four types of corporate culture. These they refer to as "The Family" (eg Japan, Spain and Italy), "The Eiffel Tower", (eg big companies in France and Germany), "The Guided Missile" (eg USA and Britain) and "The Incubator" (eg start-up companies in Silicon Valley). They go on to explain how transcultural competence can be achieved.

Understanding cultural differences, and how to cope with them, are essential skills for today's global manager. These books are a helpful introduction.

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