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Tag Archive for: intercultural

Resolving conflicts – putting the 3 questions into practice

Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship and in a recent post I shared 3 questions to ask yourself when you find yourself in a conflict situation. I appreciate that life isn’t as linear as a blog post and “3 questions” can come across as overly simplistic.  So, based on a personal example, in this post I’d like to share what the questions look like in the real world.

The big (free) eBook of negotiations language


The background and the situation

I work as a conflict mediator for a major EU institution and recently I was asked to travel to an African country. I was asked to mediate between a governmental body on one side and a large group of individuals from a very poor community on the other side. I’d travelled all the way from Luxembourg and when I arrived I called a meeting with all the individuals from this local community. I wanted to find out what was going on, what was the conflict about and learn much more about the history behind this conflict, the peoples’ interests etc. In other words, I wanted to find out Q1. What was actually going on, right in this moment?

It was Tuesday morning, I’d travelled a long way and was quite tired.  I was not exactly used to living or even being in such an area like this – slums would be the word many westerners would use,  police and army check points with machine guns pointing my way, sitting in a hot taxi, being asked for bribes. Together all of these things were making me nervous. I was definitely on unfamiliar ground and slightly tense … and there was NO-ONE at the meeting. Well, there were two people, but I had expected a hundred plus! My thoughts were “Come on, you were the ones who brought this HUGE conflict to me and my organisation’s attention. You said you wished it solved so we came, and now you are not even here! If this lethargy is typical of the community, how can I be that surprised by the destructive behaviours from the local authorities?!”

I started to get irritated, angry, and I could feel it growing. So I consciously took a deep breath, tried to clear my head and ask myself two questions – Q1 What was going on?  and Q2 How did I feel?

Understanding yourself is the basis for resolving conflicts

The first thing that came to my mind was: “If I return to Europe and we have made no progress at all to try to solve this conflict my reputation and possibly my career will be in danger.”  In other words, I was experiencing fear. The second thing that went through my mind is “I am quite angry. I spent time coming down here, and you are not even here! What sort of respect, or lack of, is that?”

I felt I had answered the first and the second question but knew something was missing. How did I really feel about it? Well, in this moment I did fear for my personal career AND I thought I felt angry because I felt the locals were disrespecting me and my efforts. I asked myself the question again and tried to look more closely into myself.  Angry was how I was acting but when I thought things through more I realised the actual emotion for me, in this situation, was more like disappointment. I wanted to help and had expected more.

BUT, did the above reflections and emotions really give me a picture of what that little ‘meeting conflict’ was about? No, It didn’t!

The role of culture in conflicts

I looked again at what was going on… A meeting had been called. People were late, but then again, it’s Africa! They were running on ‘African time’ and I was running on ‘European time’.  So it wasn’t personal nor was it a sign or rejection towards the mediation. We were just from two different cultures, with different expectations when it comes to time and punctuality. As for the risk of my career. Well, that is a systemic risk. It is always there, but it has nothing to do with the punctuality conflict at hand. I had 2 people out of a 100 for a meeting. That was a conflict, because 2 out of a 100 wouldn’t be able to give me a viable and  complete picture of the conflict, nor could they be seen as representative of the local community which was required for the mediation to be effective. This conflict was however not at all related to a systemic risk back at home. As for the potential behaviour of the local authorities, that also wasn’t related to the conflict going on at this very moment. This was the norm.

My brain seemed to be working again …

Managing your 3 brains so they work together

Simply put our brain is split in three parts, the Neocortex (the reflective and analytical  part and also the newest part), the Limbic System  (the emotional part, experienced through our emotions) and the Brainstem (sometimes called the reptilian part which governs flight or flight instincts). By forcing myself to ask and re-ask the 2 questions (What is it actually going on, right in this moment?, and How do you feel in this moment?) I had effectively de-escalated myself. I had helped my struggling brain to work as a whole and not get stuck in the lower brain parts. I could calm myself down so I could engage effectively in the meeting … when it finally started.

By the way people did actually turn up. After one and a half hours!

That just left me with the last question … How was I going to turn the conflict?

For more information

Target Training has been delivering a range of conflict-related training solutions for the last 15 years. This includes “Handling critical conflict situations” and “Managing conflicts in virtual teams” . We also offer individual and team coaching solutions.

About the author

Preben is a professional mediator and conflict manager. He focuses on human interactions, such as management and leadership, intercultural relationships and interpersonal communication. Until recently he was a welcomed part of Target Training and today works for a major European institution. In his private life he enjoys karate, hiking and climbing.


Establishing effective email etiquette in your virtual teams

Email is still one of the most common communication channels within virtual teams – and it can cause friction.  Proactively tackling potential problems is key to successfully launching a virtual team – so during our face-to-face and online seminars with virtual team leaders we discuss expectations.  Naturally communication comes into this and time spent constructing a communication plan is always time well spent. As Jochen, a German project manager shared “It sounds so obvious we didn’t think about doing it – and now that we have I can already tell that we solved some real obstacles”.

Building a communication plan when you kick off your virtual team

A communication plan outlines which communication tools you’ll use and how you’ll use them.  For example “we’ll use Webex for our brainstorming and problem solving, we’ll use Hipster for chatting and sharing links, and we’ll use email for …”

Building the plan involves discussing approaches and expectations – and by talking through these expectations you can uncover and deal with different attitudes.  An example we often run into when working with multicultural virtual teams is whereas one team member may expect people to write back a polite “thank you for the mail” another may find this a waste of time – and even annoying!  And because email is still so pervasive we’ve seen that the majority of frustrations come from how people use (or don’t use) email. To get you started with your discussions, we’re sharing below a list of email commitments one of our clients agreed to (with their permission of course).

Email commitments from a software development team working virtually across 3 countries

  1. We’ll check our email at least every 3 hours.
  2. We don’t check emails when we are in meetings.
  3. We’ll use the phone and leave a message if something is truly time critical.
  4. We’ll write email subject lines that immediately explain what the email is about.
  5. We’ll use keywords like Action by XX or FYI in the titles
  6. We assume that if somebody is copied (cc) into an email they don’t need to respond.
  7. We will avoid using the “reply to all” unless everyone absolutely needs the information
  8. We’ll pick up the phone after 3 emails on one topic.
  9. We accept that emails sent from phones occasionally have typos.
  10. We expect that larger emails are well written.
  11. We don’t use CAPITALS and we don’t normally use colours unless something is critically important.
  12. We use bold to help people scan key information
  13. We always give people the benefit of the doubt if something can be understood in two ways.
  14. When we write an email in an emotional state we all agree we will save it – and come back to it the next day. And anyway a phone call is preferred by everyone.
  15. If we’re having interpersonal problems, we don’t use email – we’ll pick up the phone or use Skype for Business.
  16. We will review this list every 4th Skype meeting and remind ourselves that we all want to follow it.

The above list is strong and clear. It was built over the course of a facilitated 30 minute discussion and it works. We’re not advocating that you take it word for word  – but why not use this a as springboard for discussing your own team’s behaviours? Building common understanding up front will help your virtual team communicate smoothly and confidently.

And if you want to read more

Here’s a useful document with tips and language for effective communication across cultures.

When is praise an insult?

During a recent presentation skills seminar for a French organization, I observed participants as they presented. I offered only feedback on the positive behaviors I saw. As we went through the round, the managing director of the group of participants couldn’t wait any longer and interrupted the feedback session by asking where was the criticism? It was obvious that the presenters were doing things that would get in the way of their presentation goals, (from audible pauses to nervous movement), and I was doing them a disservice by not pointing out the negatives. He did give me the cultural excuse of being a positive, American trainer. Yet his message was clear, the group needed correction more than praise to develop. For the record, I think both praise and correction are appropriate (and it’s true that unspecific praise can feel condescending and counterproductive, as if the recipient is too immature to take correction as a way to improve).

Praise is a complex concept that crosses many cross cultural communication styles and its effectiveness is personal as well. For example: The German culture offers the view of a foundation of trust in the working relationship. You have a job because the company feels you can do it. This general level of trust is positive enough to not require reinforcement through praise. In fact, praising someone for just “doing his job” can be insulting as if the expectations of performance are low.

How praise gets delivered is also of importance to judgements of its sincerity. In some work cultures, being singled out for enthusiastic praise if front of a group would be gratifying to the person receiving it while cultures that use more restrained emotional styles might find expressive, public praise embarrassing and impersonal. Groups using collectivist approaches would recognize team accomplishments over individual ones. Groups using individualist approaches would do the opposite.

Our brand will come from what we are very good at doing, not from correcting mistakes to an acceptable level.

James Culver

How to get it right? Praise helps us know the right way to do things so we can recognize and track behaviors we want to develop. Praise lets others know your priorities, the organization’s focus and their path forward. Done well, praise is an important tool in developing focus and innovation. Observational praise also enhances the credibility of the observer, as praise is specifically tied to authentic, recognizable behaviors the recipient and observer can agree happened.

Observe. How do people in your organization know they are on the right track? Mirror the praise behaviors in your organization and expand that style with your own approach. Note how the recipient is meeting your high standards. Let that stand for a while so it is credible.


  1. State why you are complimenting the employee


* We have thoroughly enjoyed our relationship with your company, especially because your customer service representative, John Doe, has been so helpful.
* Your representative, Jane Doe, is to be commended for her outstanding work on your last project.
* We want you to know how impressed we were with the way Jane Doe handled the delinquent accounts.
* During a recent internal audit, John Doe found a rather large discrepancy in our financial records. Had he not found that error, our corporation could have faced heavy legal fees.
* I want to tell you how pleased I am with the landscaping plan your new intern prepared for me.


* a very helpful attitude
* among the finest I’ve seen
* by your co-workers
* commendations and congratulations
* convey my appreciation to
* exceptional work done by
* express my appreciation for
* has been extremely helpful
* have thoroughly enjoyed
* have been deeply impressed
* have come to admire
* how pleased we have been
* how impressed we were
* how highly we think of his efforts
* how much we appreciate
* how pleased I am
* is to be commended for
* please accept
* received exceptional service
* want to let you know
* with the services of


  1. Acknowledge the employee’s qualities that made the contribution worthwhile


* His attention to detail helped our work move smoothly, without a single legal snag.
* His broad knowledge of the machinery has helped our trouble shooters keep the assembly line moving during the periods of heaviest demand.
* Her public relations skills helped us collect on most of the accounts that others had given up on. We hope she will be available for future cooperation.
* We commend his attention to detail. He is the most thorough accountant we have had work on our books.
* She has a good sense for balance, with the right mix of colors and textures.


* a pleasure to work with
* an excellent sense of
* attention to detail
* broad knowledge of
* consistently gone out of her way to
* courteous, well-trained staff
* dependable and thoughtful
* diligence and skill
* efficiently and with good humor
* going the extra mile
* has helped us to
* intelligent and cooperative
* made sure everything ran smoothly
* never-failing professionalism
* one of your company’s greatest assets
* particularly astute in
* professional and courteous
* public relations skills
* stays calm under pressure
* the time and thought he put into
* took care of all the details
* took the trouble to
* went out of his way to
* willingness to help


  1. Express appreciation and wishes for continued success


* Thanks again for assigning him to work with us. Best wishes for the future.
* We send our warm regards and wish you continued success.
* We wish you similar successes with your other clients.
* Please convey our appreciation to Jane for a job well done. We hope we can work together again.
* May your future endeavors be as successful as this one has been.
* You are fortunate to have Jane as an employee. Best wishes to her and the rest of you at Doe Corporation.


* are looking forward to
* best wishes for
* congratulations on your
* continue your tradition of
* convey my compliments to
* how much we appreciate
* keep up the good work
* one of your greatest assets
* our sincere thanks and appreciation
* our warmest regards
* please let everyone involved know
* please pass my appreciation on to
* please thank him for us
* thank you for
* thanks to the efficiency of
* want you to know
* will assure the continued success of
* wish you continued success
* working together again
* would like to thank her for


No man is an island – 10 great English expressions and lessons on Brexit

We don’t normally touch on politics here on the Target Training blog but Brexit represents such a monumental change not just for British people, but for Europe as a whole. It’s also not just about politics. It’s about people and freedom. The freedom to live and move in any of Europe’s wonderful corners. The freedom to mix easily with people from other cultures, learn new languages, and benefit from the wide variety of absolutely everything. Like half my country men, I am bitterly disappointed. I’ve been through a range of emotions since Friday 24th June: sadness, disbelief and fury to name just a few. This is like a grieving process, and I am slowly coming into the acceptance phase.

Here are 10 great English expressions which summarize some of the lessons from Brexit.

Lesson Number 1: It’s OK to throw your toys out of the pram (for a bit)

I can stamp my feet and scream all I like, but it’s not going to change the situation. However, throwing a bit of a tantrum helps to let some out of the emotion out before moving on to the next stages of the process.

Lesson Number 2: Just suck it up

I’ve had disappointments before. Who hasn’t? And basically, although for me BREXIT is huge, those of us in the Remain camp have just got to “suck it up”. I hate that phrase, but yes, I agree it’s time to just accept it. And work out the best possible solution for Britain, Europe, and its people.

Lesson Number 3: Don’t rest on your laurels

What does that mean? Well, this English phrase means you need to work hard to reach your goals. The turnout was “only” 73%. Yes, for a normal election, this is very high. But for an event with the potential to change the course of history, it wasn’t really good enough. Young people particularly are complaining that the older generations voted for something they didn’t want. Yet not everybody made the effort to go out and vote themselves.

Lesson Number 4: Pride comes before a fall

If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. The referendum was promised as part of the last election campaign. At that stage, nobody considered it a risk so there was no harm in throwing it into the packet. Nobody actually thought Brexit would really happen. But it did.

Lesson Number 5: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

The Remain campaign were sure they were going to win. The Leave campaign were pretty sure they weren’t going to win. Both camps counted their chickens before they hatched. As a result, all leaders, or potential leaders, have stepped down and Britain finds itself politically divided and leaderless.

Lesson Number 6: The grass is always greener on the other side

In spite of nearly every business leader and financial expert saying it would be a bad idea to leave the EU, people realized it was their chance to vote for how they really felt. Nobody can predict the future, so why not see how green the grass is on the other side? If you think something is bad, then surely a change can only be a good thing?

Lesson Number 7: You can’t have your cake (and eat it too)

Stories are beginning to emerge in which Leave voters didn’t understand that they will no longer get EU subsidies they are used to receiving. They’re realizing they can’t enjoy the best of both worlds and will need to accept that cuts will now take place.

Lesson Number 8: When the going gets tough, the tough get going

Now it’s time for tough leaders with drive to fight for a deal that will work in everyone’s interest. This is clearly not going to be easy. The British leaders (once appointed) will be negotiating knowing that half their population don’t want this situation, and the European leaders will want to find a solution that discourages other countries from wanting to leave.

Lesson Number 9: All good things must come to an end…..

This seems like a good phrase to finish off with. It’s been great, thank you Europe. (I hope you’ll let me stay – and keep my British passport)

Lesson Number 10: ….but you never know what’s just around the corner.

Who knows? The future may even hold something brighter…


This poem is by John Donne, one of Britain’s most renowned poets. It was written in 1624. He could have written this poem for Britain now.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.


Building authentic intercultural business relationships – part 3

The 7 dimensions of culture, and how does intercultural theory actually help you in business?

Why is the contract often seen as the end to a negotiation to Germans yet viewed as part of the negotiation process in China? If you are presenting, where do you put your summary? Sounds obvious – but is it? Why should you put your summary at the front when presenting to Americans (bottom line up front) And why would you start big picture and then summarize at the end if your audience was French?

Few things are as complex as human behaviour, and understanding cultures beyond a superficial level is never easy. This is where a little practical theory comes in.  If you know that specific cultures like to get to the specifics quickly via an “executive summary” (US, Dutch) and that more diffuse cultures want a holistic view, with a big picture (France, Japan) then you can structure your presentation to be successful, regardless of the nationality of your audience.

In this interview, Dr Fons Trompenaars, the best-selling author of Riding the Waves of Culture and one of the world’s leading management thinkers, explains how theory can concretely impact tangible business scenarios such as negotiating, presenting and leading others.

Effective intercultural training needs theoretical models which work hand in hand with practical exercises and activities – and this is where the 7 dimensions of culture adds real value. It can simplify complexity, and is easy to recall and explain. If you’d like to know more about the model check out, for a great explanation and practical advice.

And we’ll leave you with a final few words from Fons on how culture and communication are entwined.

Interview with Dr Trompenaars

Also online:

Building authentic intercultural business relationships – part 2

There’s a great English expression “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.  I’ve found this to be a practical starting point when working with clients to build their intercultural competence. Why? Because not every problem comes back to cultural differences! So many other factors play a part in relationships.  The first step is to recognize is this actually a difference in culture? And if yes, how am I different to this culture?

How can the Intercultural Awareness Profiler (IAP) and the 4 R’s help you succeed globally?

This is where the IAP and the 4Rs model add tangible value. Developed by Dr Fons Trompenaars, the IAP does a great job of explaining what these steps need to look like, and why  “knowing” that Chinese culture value the group’s needs over the individual’s needs doesn’t necessarily translate into performance, commitment and results. During an interview with Dr Trompenaars we asked him to briefly explain the 4Rs model in his own words, and how he saw the Intercultural Awareness Profile tool within the context of the 4Rs.

To summarize…


Can you recognize that you are dealing with differences in cultures? How do you as an individual differ from those cultures? For example, ss the different approach to decision making you’re struggling with a cultural dilemma? Or a question of personality? And most importantly – what is the dilemma?


Can you genuinely respect that the differing approaches are not better or worse – just a different way of operating. Do you respect that they are equally valid and legitimate?  For example, is coming to decisions through a consensus as valid as coming to decisions through the “expert” deciding, or by the “boss” deciding?


Now that you’ve recognized the difference and genuinely respect them how do you reconcile the dilemma facing you? What do you do?  How can you come to an agreement? How are you going to make decisions?


How will you take what is working and make it part of your day to day modus operandi? Will you forge a team culture that is transcultural (bridges all cultures)?

Interview with Dr Trompenaars

Also online:

Building authentic intercultural business relationships – part 1

Doing business with another culture can be many things – exciting, intimidating, rewarding, challenging … and intercultural training should play a key role in helping your team to prepare to succeed globally. But what should you be asking for? And how can you evaluate the many many options out there? A recent coaching session showed the dilemma perfectly. Martin, a senior materials purchaser was about to start a relationship with an Indian supplier – and their very first question to us was “So, what should I do, and not do, when I’m in Mumbai?”.

A “does and don’ts” sort of approach can be useful if you are focussing on a single culture and in a real hurry. Starting from a position of concern and wanting to be aware of tricky situations make sense -but it brings with it a range of difficult questions. Intercultural training doesn’t stop with knowing the do’s and don’ts. Nor does it stop with just theory. But, who knows to say “I have to go to Mumbai in 2 week’s time. I’d like to learn about some theory and an intercultural model”.

The limits of a do’s and don’ts approach to intercultural training

SMALL TALKThink for a moment of your own culture. How easy would it be for you to tell someone how they should act when they come to your country? Do all of the people in your country act the same, react the same, or think the same? A list of do’s and don’ts doesn’t explain the reasons behind cultural behaviours, so would it really help you to do business in that country?

Now don’t get me wrong. Do’s and don’ts

  • can provide a sense of security,
  • are easy to engage with,
  • they simplify a challenging situation.

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“Understanding one’s own cultural profile is key to enhancing job performance and bottom line business results when working with other cultures.”
Fons Trompenaars

How does the IAP differ from a do’s and don’t’s approach to intercultural skills building?

Dr Fons Trompenaars is the best-selling author of Riding the Waves of Culture and one of the world’s leading management thinkers. He is also the architect behind the Intercultural Awareness Profiler (IAP) – a self-assessment and diagnostic tool. The Intercultural Awareness Profile (IAP) is designed to assess the personal orientation and choices that individuals make when resolving intercultural business issues. We asked him “How does the IAP differ from a does and don’ts approach? “ , and this is what he said …

Building business relationships through understanding

The Intercultural Awareness Profiler (and the theory of the 7 dimensions of culture the IAP is based upon) offers you a robust basis to understand the dos and don’ts . Once you understand more about why people act a certain way, you can start to think about how you should act when e.g. presenting your product, managing staff, negotiating a framework agreement. The IAP provides a deeper level of understanding, meaning you don’t just recognize but also respect differences between cultures. Without that, how can you build authentic business relationships?

Interview with Dr Trompenaars

Also online:

Negotiation tactics – Why silence is golden

A few weeks ago I was chatting to a purchaser who worked in the automotive industry. The conversation drifted to the topic of negotiating and we began to compare countries and styles. The purchaser, a Norwegian, said half in jest but seriously enough, “You English cannot handle silence”. As a full-blooded Brit I can only agree. Many cultures, especially Scandinavians, are more comfortable with silence than others. But why is this? The impact of culture on how we communicate is certainly a factor. When I lived in Sweden I had the impression Swedes and Finns took a long time to thaw out and small talk consisted of a “Jaaaah”.  The English, on the other hand, feel uncomfortable with silence and will often fill the air with meaningless chatter.

The big (free) eBook of negotiations language

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“A Finn and a Swede go into a sauna.  After 30 minutes the Swede says “It’s hot in here”.  The Finn replies “You Swedes – you talk too much.”

Why am I sharing this? If, like me, you’re from a culture where communication is direct, silence is a hard skill to master. But whether it’s a cultural norm, a question of personality, or even a trained skill, being comfortable with silence when negotiating is essential if you want to reach your goals.  When used in a subtle and careful manner, silence can reshape negotiations and extract surprising amounts of information while leaving your counterpart feeling they are in charge of the conversation.

Value added question + silence = insight

A good negotiator, no matter what nationality, will probably be assertive but charming, have good questioning skills, and handle pressure well. Questioning skills are a must – and here silence plays a role. Silence can prompt your counterpart to share more than they planned to – verbally or non-verbally.

Poor negotiators will often answer their own question: “What price were you thinking of? I was going to suggest something in the region of € 105 per unit.”. Poor negotiators do not ask enough value added questions – a value added question being one that makes the other party pause and consider, e.g. “How did you arrive at that figure?” “What are the consequences for your clients?” “How can we help you sell this concept inside your organisation?” Answering value added questions needs time. Use the silence to observe your partner.

You have the right to be silent

Let’s assume you have asked a good question and the other party is taking his/her time to answer. A few seconds is not a problem, but after ten it can become tense. Learn to look serene and confident, smile at the other party, look at your notes and scribble something. Stay connected to the other party with body language and eye contact. At some point the other party may buy time and say “I’ll get back to you.” Alternatively you can also suggest moving on to another point. But give silence a chance.

And if the roles are reversed you have the right to be silent. Do not shoot from the hip with a half-baked, badly thought through answer. Learn to be comfortable with silence. “I’m thinking this through”, “I’d like to explore this idea, give me a minute” or “I’ll get back to you.” will buy you time.

Learning to use silence in negotiations – the role of training and practice

Silence has to be practised and refined in training or coaching. Training helps you become aware of your relationship to silence; then develop the skills to use it subtly and effectively through role plays, real plays and critical incidents. Training goves you the opportunity to repeat situations and develop awareness, confidence and mechanisms for handling silence. You can practice asking the right questions, leaving room for the other party to develop a sensible answer, practice NOT shooting from the hip, and practice behavioural strategies that make the silence comfortable for both you and your opposite number.

And remember – when negotiating silence is not a threat; silence is golden.

3 Entertaining TED talks on culture

Cross cultural communication

Pellegrino Riccardi

SMALL TALKGreat to listen to, Pellegrino (an Italian/Brit living in Norway) explores how culture is shaped by preconceived perceptions and people see what they want to see. He argues that successfully working across cultures means that you have to accept that your assumptions are not necessarily the assumptions of others. Each culture has different ideas of what is accepted and familiar – and Pellegrino brings this to life with entertaining anecdotes, some great photos and his ability to mimic accents. He finishes with an appeal for transcultural behaviour.

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Why is small talk so big in America?

Riding the waves of culture

Fons Trompenaars

As humorous as always, Fons Trompenaars explores how cultural misunderstanding can cause crisis. He start off with reminding us of the time when Americans were in America and the Chinese were in China and management theories worked – but now we have multicultural teams – so what does today’s manager do?

Fons argues that the challenge today is to reconcile cultures and create a paradigm that works across cultures. He then uses the “pedestrian dilemma” and the “peach and the coconut” analogy to remind us that regardless of where you’re from every culture faces the same dilemmas. The question is how can today’s organizations “crack the line” and build a transcultural organization?

Everything you always wanted to know about culture

Saba Safdar

Starting with a quick look at what is culture (“culture is like water to fish”) this video then looks at the specific cultural dimension of individualism and collectivism (aka communitarianism). Entertainingly, it then looks at how culture manifests itself in communication – with a smile-inducing focus on how individualism and collectivism manifests itself in insults and humour.

This is the first TED video I’ve seen where the speaker asks the audience to please shout out insults and then says thanks after hearing “moron”, and shows how insults changes across cultures based upon the importance of the individual versus the importance of the group. It then turns to humour and it does and does not cross cultures. The video clip at 14:55 where the Australian newscaster is telling a joke about the Dalai Lama to the Dalai Lama is cringe worthy.

What comes first, the coffee or the meeting?

Dealing with different expectations in meetings

mediumHave you ever needed to discuss terms and conditions with international partners? You come in ready to get down to business as quickly as possible, only to discover that the others first want to have some small talk or a coffee before discussing business? You might think to yourself, “Are we here to have a nice time or to do business?”

How we expect a meeting to run and how the meeting really progresses might be very different. We can all face the question, “When are we ready to get down to business?” So how do we find the correct balance between small talk and business? How should we identify what our partners (or participants) expect in advance?

General tips to consider before beginning the meeting

  • Find out about your audience in advance. What might be most important to them?
  • Consider following the cues of others in the meeting. How and when do they ask questions?
  • Think about potential differences in expectations and possible solutions in advance.
  • Know what you want to achieve during the meeting and how you wish to do so. Be aware that the audience might not have the same goals or process in mind.
  • Know both formal and informal phrases for dealing with different expectations.
  • Know when to use the phrases you’ve identified.
  • Notice possible mistakes (i.e. starting too soon, ignoring the other participants’ needs, etc.) and ask for feedback
  • Be aware of the importance of company culture.

Some questions to ask yourself before the meeting

  • What do the meeting participants expect?
  • When should I begin discussing business?
  • Is a formal or an informal tone better?
  • Does my company have any official information I can refer to?
  • Where can I go to find out more information about potential pitfalls?
  • What do I feel is a good balance which will accommodate everyone?
  • Would it be beneficial to receive extra training in this area?

Dealing with expectations in international meetings

When preparing for international meetings, we can take inspiration from the 7 dimensions of culture, as defined by Dr. Fons Trompenaar. They are:

  1. Universalism versus Particularism (Rules versus Relationships)
  2. Individualism versus Communitarianism (The Individual versus The Group)
  3. Specific versus Diffuse (How Far People Get Involved)
  4. Neutral versus Emotional (How People Express Emotions)
  5. Achievement versus Ascription (How People View Status)
  6. Sequential Time versus Synchronous Time (How People Manage Time)
  7. Internal Direction versus Outer Direction (How People Relate to Their Environment)

The area that best relates to our “getting down to business” scenario is the Specific-Diffuse dilemma. Here’s a quick overview* of this dimension:

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Specific People keep work and personal lives separate. As a result, they believe that relationships don’t have much of an impact on work objectives, and, although good relationships are important, they believe that people can work together without having a good relationship.
  • Be direct and to the point.
  • Focus on people’s objectives before you focus on strengthening relationships.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Allow people to keep their work and home lives separate.
Diffuse People see an overlap between their work and personal life. They believe that good relationships are vital to meeting business objectives, and that their relationships with others will be the same, whether they are at work or meeting socially. People spend time outside work hours with colleagues and clients.
  • Focus on building a good relationship before you focus on business objectives.
  • Find out as much as you can about the people that you work with and the organizations that you do business with.
  • Be prepared to discuss business on social occasions, and to have personal discussions at work.
  • Try to avoid turning down invitations to social functions.

*Taken from:

You could ask


  • Do functions and roles define relationships with others?
  • Is written communication more important than face-to-face or telephone?
  • Are closed questions more often used than open questions?


  • Do relationships with others define functions and roles?
  • Is the background story or information necessary for understanding specifics?
  • Is it valuable to invest time in getting to know each other directly and personally?

As the saying goes, being well prepared is half the battle

Although it might take a bit more time, considering the questions shown above should help you to be better prepared for meeting situations where individuals have different expectations. If you would like to learn more, have a look at our intercultural seminars or some more of our intercultural blog posts.

Download the eBook "Keys to Effective Meetings"

Working with Chinese colleagues and suppliers

Yes is one of the most simple words to understand in the English language. Or is it?

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VT posterYes is generally perceived as a positive response, and when you’re asking for something in business it’s normally the answer you’re hoping for. My father thought this when he started an importing company in China. On his first few trips to the country he returned having already mentally calculated the profits he was set to make from the customized, high quality parts they had supposedly agreed to put together within weeks for him. The only problem was he didn’t understand the word ‘yes’ like the Chinese did.

Fast forward to now, years later, and he knows that ‘yes’ means something very different in China. When saying ‘yes’, Chinese colleagues only mean that they are listening to you, rather than that your request will be fulfilled or that you have been completely understood. Many problems stemmed from this simple misunderstanding and while now there is a good business relationship between my father and his suppliers, much time was wasted getting to such a point. Artist Yang Liu summed up many of the big differences between Chinese and German cultures in her artwork of the two against one another, from little things like attitudes to standing in a line to how the counterparts view their bosses.

As an inhouse business English trainer in Stuttgart I provide on-the-job support to my client, a department of global purchasers. During the last months , I have come across many participants having to learn the hard way how to get around countless misunderstandings. From our sessions on cultural competence in China, my purchasing participants have shared experiences and identified five common lessons which speed up the process of making a business relationship with a Chinese colleague prosperous.

The group comes first

Chinese colleagues are not interested in individual gains nearly as much as helping the community around them. It’s what the culture is built on and giving individual gains for doing work will not be as effective as creating a positive and motivating team.

The importance of the leader

The boss is highly valued in China, much more so than in Germany. When a problem is getting to a point where it doesn’t seem possible to solve it, get your superior involved a lot earlier than if you were dealing with a colleague from the same culture or at least bring up the possibility in discussions.

They don’t solve problems like you

Whether it’s struggling to say no when they can’t do something, or insisting that everything is ok when it’s not, the Chinese don’t like to directly discuss and deal with a problem or talk about their shortcomings. Learning some ways to politely ask what the problem is, or getting them to take you through their schedule and deciding for yourself if there is a problem, will give better results than simply asking ‘is everything ok?’.

They don’t challenge, they listen

Chinese colleagues will often treat meetings as more of a lecture than a chance to swap ideas and air their grievances, particularly if the boss is present. On a recent trip to China, a translator summed it up well for me in her comparison of our school systems. “For us, we are told what to know and we don’t question it. For you, discussion is encouraged and you are taught to challenge.” Push them to express themselves and know that they’re not entirely comfortable doing it.

They value pleasantries

The Germans are known for seeing small talk as inefficient, but if you want a Chinese colleague to do you a favour you would be a lot better off adding some polite phrasing and extra niceties. It makes them feel as if the workplace is more harmonious and while being direct is more efficient, when they give excuses rather than results such efficiency is out the window.

Phrases for dealing with the Chinese culture

Direct English

English that is better for Chinese dealings
I think you did this wrong. Perhaps next time we could try it like this instead?
You need to do this by Wednesday. If you could do this by next Wednesday, the team can achieve their results.
I will have to get the boss involved if you don’t agree to a solution. Is this a problem that we can solve ourselves or do you think our superiors should give us assistance?
Do you understand? Could you summarise for me what you need to do (to make sure we’re on the same page)?
Are there any problems with this? Please let me know if there are any ways that you can do this more efficiently, because that would really help the team.
Did you get everything finished today? What did you finish today?

Do you want to learn more about the Chinese culture?

If you have any tips or comments on dealing with the Chinese, I’d love to hear them (and so would my participants). Please leave your comments below.

Communicating across cultures – What’s in a name?

Communicating across cultures begins with the understanding that one size does not fit all

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mediumDifferences in cultures, as we see so often, can lead to a host of great and small misunderstandings. Take something as simple as a name. It is entirely common in some German companies to use Mr. or Mrs, followed by the surname, even after years of working together. This custom can confuse a visitor from a different culture to the point that negotiations and/or meetings are less successful than they could have been – if only one of the parties had addressed the elephant in the room: How do we address each other?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”

What is perfectly acceptable in one culture may be perceived as too informal or unprofessional in another and that is also for true for the use of someone’s name. Business, conducted by Germans and non-Germans together can get complicated. Can you use first names in meetings? When? How do you know if it’s acceptable? If you ever find yourself in such a situation, here’s what you can do…

Don’t panic

When you do business in Germany, assume that ‘Mr..’ and ‘Mrs..’ is the norm. This may throw you, but don’t take this formality as a reflection on you or your business relationship. You should know that it’s very likely “Herr Jung” and “Frau Groß” use last names when they speak to each other, too. The silver lining is that it’s quite a leap forward in the business relationship if someone invites you to use his/her first name.

Take the initiative

Let people know how you would like to be addressed before that elephant shows its long-nosed face. When introducing yourself, give your full name first “Good morning, my name is Bette Ernst.”, then add a simple “Please, call me Bette.” This may seem too friendly, but it certainly establishes one of the most important things you may want them to know: you see them as an ally, a partner, and you want to work with them.

At this point the other person has two options:

  • They can take you up on your offer: “That’s very kind, Bette.” And they will probably follow up with an offer for you to call them by their first name: “And, please call me Al.
  • They can politely decline: “Thank you, but we prefer using surnames in this company” or “Thank you. But I think I’d feel better with Mrs. Ernst’.” Then you must keep using their surname, as well. Again, this is not a reflection on you. Some people just prefer to wait until they know someone well – beyond a first meeting – before they start using first names.

Better be safe than sorry

“When I speak to my boss in the office, in a regular conversation, I can use his first name. But in a meeting or in front of the other colleagues…no way!” That was what an Executive Assistant told me when I asked her if she referred to her boss by his first or last name. Always err on the side of safety. Authority and formality matter in a lot of cultures. If you might embarrass the person or call her stature or authority into question by using the first name, don’t do it. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. Again, if they offer to allow you to use their first name, it’s a big step. Well done!

Consider the big ‘but…’

If you expect the meeting to be especially contentious, if you have to negotiate with someone particularly difficult, if the meeting will involve a significant amount of disagreement, or if the discussion involves unpleasant topics, it’s probably better that you stick to more formal language.

Although offering to let others call you by your first name is a great way to immediately ‘warm up the room,’ I think it’s almost never a good idea to ask someone if you can use their first name. “May I call you Peter?” sounds polite enough, but it can put people on the defensive. They may feel you have “crossed a line” merely by asking. You can also suggest that everyone in the meeting use first names, but that’s a minefield you’d do well to avoid.

International business etiquette

Besides the large amount of cultural differences, there are also a large number of commonalities when it comes to doing business internationally. Here are two links:





Doing business successfully in Germany – from a German perspective

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I recently asked my German IT participants in a multinational company to do a bit of brainstorming about their ideas for what it takes to be successful when doing business with Germans. Here are some of the ideas they found important. Of course the list is by no means exhaustive. While researching this topic, my participants and I found one website in particular to be very helpful You can find more useful cultural information about Germany and other European countries on this site.

Recognize that different people have different language abilities and try to be accommodating

Just because someone can create beautifully formed sentences or can speak very rapidly doesn’t mean that these skills are also appreciated by others learning the language. Although English is taught in schools, not everyone has the same skills. One’s expectations and the reality might not match up. Be aware of this and be able to adjust accordingly. It will improve business relationships immensely.

Stating issues or asking questions initially is often appreciated in email form first

Germans sometimes feel self-conscious about their language skills and tend to downplay their real abilities. However, receiving initial information in written form is often appreciated due to understanding issues like accents, rate of speed, potentially unfamiliar vocabulary, etc. After the first email has been sent, however, it is sometimes useful to clarify unclear points with a telephone call.

Don’t underestimate the value of clear, direct communication

Germans like clarity and security. This can be seen in the preferred communication style too. Unlike some cultures where “No” is never stated even if that is what is meant, this isn’t the case in Germany. It is highly respected when you are able to give clear, concise answers to questions. If you mean “No” then say “No” and vice versa. Don’t be surprised if conversations are very direct or even blunt. This is considered normal and valuable.

Know at least a little bit about potentially sensitive topics

Although Germans usually highly regard directness, there are certain topics that you should avoid being very direct about. These include asking about salaries, sharing too much personal information or expecting to be asked out for drinks after a meeting, just to name a few.

Time is very important in Germany

Meetings generally start on time, efficiency is highly valued, and people tend to try to restrict the amount of work they do during the evening hours. While there are exceptions of course, the statements above are often the norm. Although many things have been standardized in Germany, shop opening hours do not necessarily fall into this category. Be aware that shops will not be open later than listed (and might not even let you in 10 minutes before closing time), that lunch times vary, as do opening hours in general. This is true for shops and offices alike.

The role of a meeting might be different than expected

In many English-speaking countries, meetings are places for open discussion and sharing of opinions. This often isn’t the case in Germany. Depending on the participants (i.e. managerial positions, hierarchy etc.), meetings can be a method used to inform others of decisions or deadlines, to communicate roles and responsibilities or to give status updates. When participants are part of a working group at the same hierarchical level, there is often more discussion among members. The tone is usually formal and you are expected to be prepared and only contribute when asked to do so.

More cultural insights

Do you work with other nationalities? Which tips would you add to our list? We’d like to hear from you!

If you are interested to read more about working with different cultures, here are a few suggestions:

Not everyone’s a natural at small talk

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Do you prepare for small talk?

Not only natural small talkers are good at small talk. How much time do you spend preparing for a presentation? Let’s assume you don’t make those up as you go, why should it be different with small talk? Being a confident small talker means you need to be prepared and give some thought to what you can ask and say.

Knowing what to ask

When you are back in France visiting your colleagues at the local plant, recall prior conversations you had. What did you talk about in the past? Holidays, children, work, hobbies? Remembering specifics is great but not necessary. Perhaps you remember that your colleague told you they were going on holiday, but you forgot when and where. Ask something like, “The last time I saw you, you mentioned you were going on holiday. How was it?”

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Knowing what to say

When you know you will be put in situation where you must make small talk, for example lunch with a client or visiting a project site, think about what contributions you can make. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What interesting books or movies have I read or seen recently?
  • What are my upcoming holiday or weekend plans?
  • What interesting places have I traveled to or visited recently?
  • What new projects am I excited about at work?
  • What new challenges am I facing at work?
  • What are my current hobbies?

Answering these questions to yourself will help prepare you with topics of conversation to share in small talk that you feel are safe. Try to have three or four experiences or contributions in mind before entering a small talk situation.

Remember what small talk is

“Every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk. The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them.” Bernardo J. Carducci

It’s great to ask your small talk partner questions about themselves- it shows sincere interest. However, if you only ask questions and never share anything about yourself, it will sound like a job interview at best or an interrogation at worst. Try to strike a balance between listening and speaking.

For more small talk, here’s one I wrote earlier: Open up your small talk

Doing business with Italians

I’m half Italian, half German and I grew up in Germany. I thought I understood both sides of my heritage, but I didn’t really discover how different these two cultures could be until my work as a sales manager took me to Italy. In fact, it took me a year of working in Italy, building a sales department for a German energy supplier, before I began to fully appreciate how to do business in Italy. As a guest author for Target Training, I want to share some of the lessons I learnt.

What the Italians love and admire

Italians love their language, their country, good life, good food, beauty and fashion. They admire order and punctuality but rarely act in this way. The more south you go the more this is true. (In fact Italians refer to two Italys: the one north and the one south of Rome. Rome itself being part of the southern half). Do not be surprised if your Italian business partner arrives half an hour late to a meeting. He may excuse himself but probably will not. It is also fairly normal to answer the (mobile) phone in the middle of a meeting.

How they work

Business is largely based on personal relationships. A task may take a month or more when carried out for an unknown client. The same task might be completed in two days if a favoured client asks for the same thing. This results in an environment of reciprocal obligations.

The worst thing that can happen to an Italian is: fare una brutta figura (making a bad figure, that is giving a bad impression). It is important not to lay blame on any person in public, e. g. in a meeting unless you really want to “punish” that person. If you want to lay blame, you may be better off doing so in a one to one talk.

Time for meetings = time for foodmedium

Business meetings will probably take place shortly before, after, or even during meal times. Italians prefer to make contracts between people, not between companies. Eating together is one of the best ways of connecting to other people. Building trustworthy relationships is crucial to Italians. You probably will not get down to business until you’ve been out to eat with the decision makers a couple of times. Dinner tends to be the most important meal of the day.

Do you want to be a guest author on our blog?

For our Intercultural series, Andy Fluck has written a post about doing business with Italians. We hope you find it as interesting as we do. If you want to contribute as a guest author, we’re always looking for more cultural insights. If you have spent a lot of time doing business with another culture, or if you have other cultural business experiences you want to share: send us an email

Are you looking for cultural insights?

Read the other articles in our Intercultural series:

The language

If you are interested in doing long-term business with Italians, you should learn Italian. The efforts you put in to learning the language will pay off in your business relationships. Many Italians speak good English, but they do not like it. If they have the choice between an Italian and an English speaking business partner, they are prone to choose the Italian speaking one.

About the author af

Andy Fluck, Handwerk des Verkaufens

Kompetenz – Methode – Persönlichkeit

Ich fülle die Auftragsbücher meiner Kunden, in dem ich Sie in Ihrer Kommunikation in Verkauf, Führung und in Ihrer Persönlichkeitsentwicklung unterstütze. Sprechen Sie mich gerne an.



Sequential and Synchronic Views of Time

Originally published on 20.03.2013

“Are we on time?”

The question seems simple enough but that seemingly simple question can unlock different ways of viewing time and the commitments associated with our view of time. My experience with intercultural training has made me think about that question a bit differently.

“On time” in Ghana

It reminds me of the story about a German businessman traveling in Ghana.  He set a meeting with his Ghanaian counterpart for 1 p.m. Since “on time” for the German businessman meant arriving early enough for the meeting to begin at 1 p.m., he made sure he arrived at the Ghanaian’s office 10 minutes early to account for things that could go wrong.  After his arrival, he was greeted by the secretary of his Ghanaian counterpart and told to take a seat. 1 p.m. came and went and his Ghanaian counterpart wasn’t there. 1:10 p.m. came and went, and his counterpart wasn’t there. 1:20 p.m. came and went and his counterpart still wasn’t there. At this point the German businessman asked the secretary if everything was OK. Had there been an accident preventing the arrival of his counterpart? The secretary simply smiled and said she was sure everything was OK and that the Ghanaian businessman should be along any minute now. The German businessman returned to his seat and continued to wait, becoming angrier as each moment passed. As the clock struck 1:45 p.m. the Ghanaian businessman entered his office in no particular hurry, chatted with his secretary and invited the then angry German businessman into his office.  After closing the door, the German businessman could not contain himself any long and he said, “I don’t know what kind of outfit you’re running here but we clearly said we would meet at 1:00 p.m.  According to my watch, it is now 1:55 p.m.!” The Ghanaian took a seat behind his desk and said “My good man, you have the watch but I have the time.”

Sequential v. Synchronic views of time

The story above is an illustration of two different ways of seeing time, sequentially and synchronically. According to Fons Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture, cultures with a preference for a sequential approach to time tend to treat time as a commodity. Time is something to be saved, spent or wasted. Time is used to bring order and set limits, like the counsellor who says your time is up even if you are in the middle of revealing a deep insight.

On the other hand, those cultures which tend to see time synchronically see time more holistically and interconnected. Time doesn’t drive the task.  If I am meeting with my manager and the meeting goes longer than expected, I probably won’t stand up at the appointed hour and leave! If he decides it is a better use of my time to meet with him than to do the other things I planned to do, then I would shift and cancel other commitments. Synchronic cultures tend to value priorities more than a predetermined time limit. They will do what is right to do at the moment, not follow a strict schedule.

When different cultural perspectives of being “on time” clash

Typically one view can accommodate the other. I can bring a book or work with me to appointments in case someone is late or add time to the appointment in anticipation of the other being late. On the other hand, I could clear time before an important meeting, account for what could go wrong and leave in plenty of time to be there at the appointed hour.  If I’m early, so be it. Reconciliation is something different than simply tolerating and accommodating the tendencies of others. In reconciliation we can negotiate with each other to find a way that works for both of us. Being aware of our different tendencies and caring about our relationships leads to solutions beyond compromise.

For example, if I am more synchronic and you are more sequential, instead of you needing to bring a book with you to our meeting, I’ll commit to a longer time together and provide you with a meaningful activity before we meet. If we need less time, you will have saved time and if I am delayed you still can do something worthwhile and productive before we begin. No time is “wasted” and you will have my undivided attention during our meeting until our goals are met.

More Intercultural

The focus on reconciliation is why Target Training integrates Trompenaars Hampden-Turner’s experience and research into our solutions.  Through reconciliation, clients will find better solutions to the intercultural  problems they face.  Target Training is a licensed supplier of  Trompenaars-Hampden-Turner’s  Intercultural Awareness Profile and Cultural Competence Online Products. Target Training provides intercultural training based on the Trompenaars’ Seven Dimension Model alone and as part of business communication skills training.

More intercultural insights…

Softening your phrases in business communication

English is much less direct than German. If you say “Ich kann nicht am Treffen teilnehmen, da ich zur Zeit beschäftigt bin”, your German colleagues will have no problems with how you communicated that information. However, using that sentence (I’m too busy to come to the meeting) with your English partner/colleague may cause problems in your business relationship. Non-native speakers often use the shortest sentence possible to pass on information. Because you’re communicating in a different language, you want to be as clear as possible and avoid ambiguity. Here are a few things you can do to soften your phrases when you are communicating in English.

Ask, don’t tell

In English, expectations often come in the form of a question. Here are some examples:

  • Would you mind helping me with this? (I really hope that you will.)
  • Could you please send me the information by Monday at the latest? (I expect to have the information by Monday.)
  • Would it be possible for you to attend the meeting next week? (We would appreciate you being there.)

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Include please and/or thank you

This sounds very simple and easy to do. You’re right. But you would also be surprised how often this is forgotten about, neglected because of time or not considered important enough to include. However, these little words really make a big impact on the message that you give the recipient. Consider the differences in the following examples:

  • The teleconference starts at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow. vs. Please remember that the teleconference starts at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow.
  • Leave the documents on my desk before you leave tonight. vs. Please leave the documents on my desk before you leave tonight. Thank you very much.
  • I got the report last week. vs. Thank you for sending the report last week.

Send the right message

Sometimes writing a little bit more helps the recipient understand your intent. Apart from what you would like them to do, emotions can also be communicated in a message like this. Take a look at these two examples:

Ms. Lansing,

The report you sent me last week has a few inconsistencies in it. Please check columns two and three and send me an updated version as soon as possible.

Many thanks in advance,


Ms. Lansing,

Thank you very much for the report that you sent last week. The information you provided will help us greatly during the next stage of the project.

We have, however, come across a few inconsistencies in the figures. Would you mind double checking columns two and three to make sure that they are correct? Please contact me as soon as possible with the results.

Best regards,


More communication tips and phrases

Here are a few posts from our blog that you might find interesting:

Do you use softening phrases when communicating in English? Let us know in the comments box below. We’d love to hear from you.

Building business relationships with the Chinese

One of the companies where I train recently opened a plant in China, so doing business with Chinese people has become a topic of great interest for a lot of the participants in my training program. Some of these participants recently had the chance to attend an intercultural training session that highlighted some of the key differences between German and Chinese business people. As this topic is also useful for me as a Business English trainer, I asked for the highlights of the training. While there were many more interesting points, these stood out the most:


While this is a broad generalization, Chinese people can roughly be split into three categories: those born before 1950, those born before 1980 and those born after 1980. Most of us will likely have no business contact with older Chinese people, but the cultural distinction between those born before and after 1980 can be significant. A person born before 1980 is more likely to have traditional Chinese attitudes to certain business topics. These can include giving more respect to older people over those younger – regardless of experience, emphasizing consensus over making decisions quickly to avoid anyone “losing face”. The younger generation, however, has generally had much more exposure to other cultures – through the internet, movies and other media. This will frequently mean that they are more likely to react in the same way a young person from the US, Germany, France etc. might react.

Yes and no

Another generalization is that Chinese people “never say no” when doing business. While this obviously isn’t true, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which are very straightforward for those of us from many European backgrounds, can be used differently by our colleagues, customers or suppliers from China. Here are some quick equations:

Are you looking for cultural insights?

Read the other articles in our Intercultural series:

Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Let us know!

More about our intercultural seminars or the IAP.

“Yes” + concrete days, times and details = yes.

Keep in mind, however, that unless you are speaking to the CEO of a company, it is likely that any important decisions will only be made after consultation with other stakeholders in the company. Pressuring someone for concrete details, promises or a definitive “yes” can put them in a difficult situation and any “promise” you force from them may well be negated by someone further up the hierarchy. Likewise an agreement that has been made without the consent of the bosses further up the line may not be considered binding as it was made without consulting them.

“Yes” + phrases like, “I’ll see what I can do,” “I’ll speak to my manager,” or “I’ll have more information for you later” = maybe.

For many cultures, including the Chinese, saying “no” can be considered impolite or an admission that you are unable to help the person asking. For this reason, a “yes” or “maybe” is often qualified with another phrase allowing the respondent to avoid making promises he can’t keep.

“Maybe”, “It’s possible” = “I don’t know” or “no”.

In some situations, it can be difficult for any of us to say “I don’t know”. This seems to show a lack of knowledge or authority on our part – and in certain types of social or business interaction, we don’t want to give that message. In Chinese culture, the situations where this happens can be different to many European cultures but the reaction is still the same. Forcing the respondent to admit they don’t know or that they don’t have the authority to make that decision will be embarrassing to them and may cause resentment which, in the long run, will be bad for you.

High context and low context communication

An example of a high context sentence might be, “Could we open the window?” An example of a low context sentence might be, “You smell bad.” Low context communication, or the “direct approach”, can make Westerners appear clumsy and unsophisticated, or even impolite to their Chinese counterparts. This can also come across in what might seem to a European or American to be a simple statement, e.g. “You have to do x”. “That’s wrong” or “You can’t do that”. When you are writing an email or speaking to a Chinese person (or any other culture for that matter), listen to the phrasing they use and word your requests, suggestions and advice in a similar way.

More intercultural

The information presented above barely scratches the surface of the cultural differences that we can be faced with when working with Chinese counterparts. However, it highlights some key things we can think about when it comes to building business relationships with the Chinese. It also, hopefully, minimizes misunderstandings.

If you are interested in learning more, take a look at these blog articles:

Keys to doing business with India

Over a period of eight years, I’ve worked in India in various multinational companies. I’ve had the opportunity to experience Work-Life-Balance of normal working class people, both in India and in Germany.  I believe that success in business ultimately boils down to understanding different cultures beyond the surface.  Doing business with different cultures can be difficult especially if you look at it in the light of your own culture.

Building a good, business friendly relationship with your Indian colleagues is one of the keys to successful business.  Indians are more relationship oriented than task oriented and tasks are completed faster, if you have the right contacts.  In this post, we’ll look at some important cultural differences.

The time factor

Being punctual is extremely important in certain cultures where “time is money”. Business in India is often relaxed; you always have time to listen to people, make time for unforeseen situations and work long hours. It is key to understand the importance time is given as it directly affects how we meet deadlines, start and end work, schedule appointments, etc.

How can you handle this cultural difference?

  • Set expectations: Always set clear deadlines – not imposed, but agreed upon by both parties.
  • Buffer time: Always have some extra time planned in case something goes wrong. Schedule a realistic deadline.
  • Follow up: Set up a meeting to get a regular update about the project. If the deadline is five days away, you may want to follow up on day three. However, if the time period is long, you may want to set up multiple meetings spread out evenly and realistically.

Saying no is a big NO

While some cultures can say “no” without much hesitation, Indian cultures find it extremely difficult to do so.

Are you looking for cultural insights?

Read the other articles in our Intercultural series:

Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Let us know!

More about our intercultural seminars or the IAP.


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“No” is considered to be negative, blunt and rude. “No” means not even trying. “No” could also mean showing incapability. Very often these cultures try to sound optimistic by saying “yes” or “I’ll try” even if they are certain the answer is a “no”. Building a friendly business relationship and trust will encourage your Indian colleagues to say “no” when needed. Assure them that a “no” is really appreciated instead of a “yes” or “I’ll try” when actually the answer is ”no”. Encourage them with examples of your own when you had to say no and things turned out better as a result. This is a BIG cultural difference, bigger than you think. It will take time, but once it works, doing business will be a lot easier.

Be sensitive about the situation

Society as a collective plays a very big role in India. “We” works a lot better than “you” or “I”. People’s opinions are more important than what an individual thinks about himself. Mistakes, big or small, are seen as failure. This doesn´t mean that if you notice a mistake, you let it go or don’t breathe a word about it. It just means that you have to be sensitive while pointing out mistakes.

  • Don’t use: “You made this mistake last time.”
  • Use: “The mistake was made last time.”

Don’t focus on what’s wrong, focus on how you can correct it.

  For example

“Anup, if you remember we spoke about this software issue last time. We noticed the software wasn’t working as expected because of XYZ. We should eliminate this problem so it doesn’t happen again. Could you please make a note of it? You will be in charge of this issue, ok?”

 Vocalize appreciation

Indian culture needs to be told verbally “everything is ok/good.”  Show people you notice good work and appreciate it. Certain cultures need more motivation than others. Just a simple, “good job” or “well done” can make a big difference. Say it like you mean it. Remember your tone says more than your words.

 More tips on doing business with India

  • When you meet an Indian business partner or colleague in person, the men are usually comfortable shaking hands but some Indian women may just say hello with a nod and a smile.
  • Food is extremely important for Indians. If they are invited out to a business lunch, food similar to Indian food will be greatly appreciated; however Indians are very polite and will not complain or voice their preferences. It is also important to keep religion in mind when ordering meat. Some Indians are vegetarians and some avoid beef and pork for religious reasons.
  • If alcohol is offered in a business celebration/outing, the women usually won’t drink. The men might. Drinking alcohol isn’t very common in India, especially with people older than you or in higher positions in your company hierarchy.

Doing business the Dutch way

I spent a lot of my professional life working in different countries before settling down in Germany. Being Dutch myself, I’ve been regularly surprised at being called blunt and likewise, frustrated by people not simply saying what they mean when they had something to say. Since joining Target Training, I’ve gained a better insight into different cultures, through international colleagues and tools such as the IAP. 

The Dutch are known to be direct, sometimes blunt and always forthcoming with their opinions (even when not asked) in business, just like they are in their personal lives. They don’t ‘beat around the bush’ or ‘mince their words’. This behaviour can be perceived as rude by foreigners, but in the Netherlands it’s highly appreciated when people say what they mean in as few words as possible.

Point out mistakes

When doing business with the Dutch, don’t be afraid to point out a mistake. More likely than not, you’ll actually gain the respect of your Dutch colleagues / business partners if you do so. At the very least they’ll appreciate that you’re giving them the opportunity to correct the mistake that you’ve spotted.

Give your opinion

Giving your honest opinion is a virtue in the eyes of the Dutch. Even if you completely disagree with what they say, it’s better to share your thoughts than to keep them to yourself – and be direct. Business meetings and discussions focus on reaching consensus, not top-down decision making. Everybody gets to have their say. Once a decision is made, the Dutch tend to stick to it.

Are you looking for cultural insights?

Read the first part of this series of articles: How the British handle difficult questions.

Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Let us know!

More about our intercultural seminars or the IAP.


Actions speak louder than words

The Dutch don’t put a huge value on titles or the amount of money you might make. Though they value education, having a number of letters in front or behind the name on your business card (prof. dr. , etc.) won’t get you the respect this automatically gets you in other cultures. Regardless of your status, they will tell you what they think if you ask for their opinion or input. They expect you to do the same. If you can prove that you ‘know what you’re talking about’, you’ll earn their professional respect. You may the boss of a company, you are still expected to know how the coffee machine works!

More tips on dealing with the Dutch

  • Avoid superiority or being overpowering. Try to reach consensus by negotiation rather than by instruction and respect the opinions of others.
  • When you meet a Dutch business partner or colleague in person, shake hands with everyone else in the room too (even the team assistant who is only there to take notes) and when you leave, shake hands again with everyone in the room. This is regardless of meeting for the first or the tenth time.
  • Don’t be overly polite or too nice. To the Dutch, these are suspicious behaviours and may cause irritation and may be seen as insincere.
  • Don’t be surprised (or insulted) when your working lunch consists of a cheese or a ham sandwich. A “broodje kaas” or “broodje ham” are staples of the Dutch lunch (often accompanied by a glass of milk or buttermilk). Anything more than that is seen as overly excessive.
  • Don’t expect compliments (or give them) at every opportunity. You may have come up with a solution to world hunger, or a complex business problem, or even saved the company a ton of money by making a small change in an operational process – “good job” is about as much as you’ll hear from them, if anything. Saying more than that when giving a compliment is perceived as embarrassing. However, you can see silence as a compliment – remember, your Dutch colleague or partner will point it out if there’s something “wrong” with your work.
  • Don’t talk business after business hours. To the Dutch, there’s time for work and time for ‘play.’ If you need or want to discuss business after hours, make sure your Dutch partners/colleagues agree to discuss business during ‘play’ time.
  • Avoid exaggerating about your products, services or experience. To the Dutch, these should speak for themselves.