Beyond the Obvious: Culture and Management Issues in Northern Europe, Part 2


British, in contrast with American English, is really not the same language, and language experts assure us that we are moving further apart linguistically every day. There is a temptation, however, to think that doing business in England is the same thing as doing business in the United States, other than coping with their "quaint British accent." Nothing could be more wrong. Hierarchy is terribly important to the British, and sales people who have stumbled over this fact have learned to realize that if you want to talk to a Director of a British corporation, you had better be of equivalent status in your own organization. It is for this reason that American companies who do business abroad have developed an entirely different set of descriptive titles for their people. A sales manager in the United States becomes a Director of Sales and Marketing when they venture into the British Isles. Titles and educational certification, important in all of Europe, is especially important in England. Americans who would not think of listing their degrees after their name on a business card will find that Europeans expect to see those qualifications, and will often close doors to those who do not have them.

Another American custom which can cause great dismay for a British host is that of inquiring about one's occupation, or asking for personal information upon being introduced. "Oh, what do you do...?" is a common enough American conversation starter, but it would be seen as extremely rude in England.

Formality is an art form in England. Even social events are cause for relatively formal dress, and appearing at a party in the evening at your business host's home in anything but a business suit (black or grey, please) is an insult. We know an American hostess who was understandably concerned that the wife of her husband's business acquaintance arrived for an outdoor barbecue in "Sunday-go-to-meeting" clothes, including a hat. The proper English woman was only being proper in her hostess's home.


While somewhat less formal, these countries follow German rules in general, with the exception of the French sections of the Benelux, where everything is at least as French as in Paris.


Along with the other Mediterranean countries, these countries follow a different pattern, though their thinking processes and flexibility of schedule and time are similar to France - appointments are treated extremely casually. In all of the southern countries, establishing relationships prior to conducting serious business is extremely important. Indeed, lacking a high level of trust, no business will be done from France south, including the Arabic countries. Time and appointment priorities are often determined by the level of trust someone has in the person making the appointment. Do not be surprised to be kept waiting, sometimes for long periods, while your host takes care of personal business, and meetings can be interrupted by someone closer to the host - a family member or trusted confidant. It is also common for offices in the Southern European countries to be very nepotistic; you hire people you trust.


The Eastern Bloc countries are populated by people with a serious and deep sense of history and pride in their culture. While they may not have the capacity as yet to conduct business in a capitalist mode, and while they may lack much of the infrastructure that we expect in the rest of Europe and the United States, to assume that they are underdeveloped, primitive or intellectually or culturally limited is to make a common and unrecoverable error.

Those who have learned to succeed in other parts of our globe have learned several significant lessons in their travels. First, they have learned the overwhelming importance of communication, and they have found ways to overcome language barriers quickly and gracefully. Second, they have learned to suspend assumptions, and live their lives as learners, not as cultural missionaries for American free enterprise. They have acquired patience and empathy for others, and they have learned that seeking understanding is more important than trying to be understood. Above all they have learned that trust is the most important single ingredient in any global business transaction, and they have learned to go beyond the obvious in their efforts to create that trust along the way.

For more in-depth sources on various countries and cross-cultural issues view our Bibliography.

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

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