Beyond the Obvious: Culture and Management Issues in Northern Europe, Part 1

Learn to suspend assumptions and overcome language barriers quickly and gracefully.

In today's ever shrinking world, our negotiations occur more and more frequently with people from other countries - very often from northern Europe. The following article, in the form of a newsletter, recently came across our desk. We liked it so much that we are reprinting it here in its entirety. We think you will find it very helpful and interesting.

This edition of The Successful Negotiator will contain sections on Germany and France. The following edition will include England, Scandinavia, the Benelux countries, Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries.

There was a time when we spent most of our energy working with organizations that had budding relationships with suppliers, customers or divisions in Asia, especially Japan. It was comparatively easy to build validity into our efforts then, because the languages, customs - even the dress and the physical look of the people - were so obviously different that American managers knew the rules had changed and that they needed help. Lately, however, we are finding that our cross-cultural work more often serves companies that are working with affiliates or subsidiaries in Northern Europe (France, Germany, Scandinavia, the Benelux) and the Eastern Bloc countries, especially Poland and Russia. Perhaps because many of us grew up in areas where Latin, Teutonic and Cyrillic based languages were used by immigrant populations, and because Europeans look more familiar, we tend to think that doing business in those countries is not a cross-cultural experience.

Many organizations have discovered, sometimes a bit late, that this assumption is dramatically in error. There are patterns of culture and modes of management in European countries that are significantly different from those to which we have become accustomed in the United States. Here are some tips for doing business in various parts of the European Continent:


Germans like things neat and orderly, and they like to see detailed evidence to support conclusions that you draw and recommendations that you make. Their thinking is quite linear, and they expect that they will hear an outline of what you are going to say at the beginning of a presentation, followed by a very detailed rationale for what you have outlined. History is extremely important, and they look for chronology and historical perspective in everything they do. It is not unusual for a German manager to lapse into a long discussion of a point in order to build credibility and logic into his presentation, and he will look for the same from you.

The typical American approach of building an argument with a litany of examples, and then announcing what they all mean at the end simply doesn't work in Germany. It's a good way to put people to sleep, but it won't get the order, and it won't get people to take action. The old adage, "tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em," makes a good model for a presentation to a group of German managers.

In most of Northern Europe, and especially in Germany (and German Switzerland) dress is very important. You may see native Germans and Swiss appear at the office in sports jackets, but an American visitor must always wear a suit, and it must never be brown. Brown is the color Europeans wear in the country on weekends, but never in the office during the week. Again, you may see Europeans, especially non-managers, dressed in brown, but you should never do so. That also applies to shoes - never brown. Because Germans are fussy about time and appointments, you must be fastidiously on time for meetings. It is never wise to arrive without an appointment - Germans dislike interruptions in their schedules, and will do almost anything to avoid them. Interruptions in the thought process by seemingly irrelevant material is also a problem in Germany. For this reason, German advertising is direct, to the point, and everything in an ad is product-relevant. Put a sexy woman in an ad with an automobile, and the reaction in Germany will be, "What does she have to do with it?" rather than seeing sex as adding appeal to the ad. Germans look for information about products, not subtle sells.


Unlike Germans, French managers usually carry a number of thought processes around in their heads at the same time. They are much more cavalier about schedules and appointments, and are less likely to resist interruptions. They want as much or more detail, but they want their data in raw form, and prefer to draw their own conclusions, not to be told in an executive summary what the "correct" answer or decision is. Until a relationship has been firmly established, and trust exists between the parties (this can take what, for Americans, seems to approach forever) they will require reams of data from you before they will make a decision. Unlike Americans, who tend to make decisions quickly, and expect that if the decision turns out to be wrong they will change direction, French managers do not assume risk lightly, and will usually not make a decision until all elements of risk have been completely and thoroughly examined. A French manager once told us that he would rather risk the loss of market position and potential gain, rather than make a decision too quickly and risk being wrong. Along with this need for data comes an exquisite ability to think through complex issues in an effective manner - a real strength of French managers in general.

Americans often make fun of (or decry) the French worship of their language. We all have heard that not to speak French in France is to risk the wrath of your French host. While this is seldom as true as it is often alleged, this legend of travelers is based on a very important aspect of the French communications process. French conversation is glorious in its ornamentation, and the ability to express complex ideas and feelings in what we would describe as "flowery" prose (or poetry), is what distinguishes an educated person in France. To be forced to communicate in another language, even when the speaker is relatively fluent, is roughly akin to what one French manager described as "trying to push a wheelbarrow with only one arm." Thus, the resistance to the use of a language in which one lacks complete fluency and an extended, sophisticated vocabulary is the real root of what Americans have come to describe as a "haughty rejection of anything not French." The lessons to be learned include the necessity of making a conscious effort to assure that the whole meaning of a conversation makes it across the cultural ocean, and that, when possible, translation is critical, especially in the early stages of a relationship with a French organization, when building trust cannot be overemphasized in its importance.

Note: The preceding was reprinted from: Global Management Perspectives - A quarterly newsletter from Magellan Global Management Resources; Volume 2: Winter 1995.

Asherman Associates, Inc.
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