I’ve had the opportunity to work with people from foreign cultures since I was young and this diversity has aided me in gathering quite a lot of experience to evolve. How cultural differences affect business life, what the consequences are, all dependon your attitude. Is it possible to ignore cultural differences? You cannot run a global company by ignoring cultural differences. It is essential for your success.
In my article entitled “Everyone Has a Role on the Board of Directors” dated November 8, 2020, I mentioned the book “Secrets of the Board”, which describes the habits of boards of directors of different cultures.
The systematic approach that this book and many studies base different cultural habits on belongs to Erin Meyer. Erin Meyer is an INSEAD Business School Professor and with her 2014 book Culture Maps (1), she put forward a model that helps readers see the differences in foreign cultures based on the knowledge that had been revealed up to that time. The book’s two main sources were Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought (2) and Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (3), who himself had worked in IBM human resources in the 1970s. In his famous book Nisbett proves that the reason for people’s different thoughts and views concerning the world are different ecologies, social structures, philosophies and education systems. Hofstede used four scales for culture analysis:
· Power distance: The extent to which people with lower power accept the unequal distribution of power by individuals in society. There is a clear hierarchy in countries with a high power distance index. In the lower ones, it is seen that people question authority and want equal distribution of power.
· Uncertainty avoidance: The measure of the response of individuals in society to uncertain events. Countries with a high index apply strict codes of conduct. Rules and laws are written to reflect absolute truth. Countries with a low uncertainty avoidance index are more prone to differing opinions and accept less order in their lives.
· Masculinity – femininity: In this scale, masculine; represents society’s preference for success, heroism, and material rewards, while feminine reflects a preference for cooperation, humility, and quality of life.
· Individualism – collectivism: In individualistic societies, people’s bonds with family and friends are weaker. In the collective society, it is seen that cooperation in group and loyalty are higher.
Erin Meyer, on the other hand, created an eight-scale model on the prediction that cultural behavior and belief patterns often influence our perceptions (what we see), our understanding (what we think) and our actions (what we do). While each dimension represents a fundamental area that managers should be aware of, how a dimension varies from one end to the other also reveals the cultural difference. Meyer’s eight scales are as follows (1):
• Communication: low context – high context
• Rating: direct negative feedback – indirect negative feedback
• Persuasion: principles first – practices first
• Leadership: egalitarian – hierarchical
• Decisionmaking: top-down – consensus-based
• Trust: task-based – relationship-based
• Conflict: conflict based – conflict avoidant
• Planning: linear time – flexible time
Meyer created these scales based on the feedback of hundreds of international managers and put many countries in the scale to show what is acceptable or appropriate behavior in that country.
According to Meyer, if a manager is to build and manage global teams that work together successfully, she or he must understand not only the experiences of people from his own culture with people from other cultures, but also how these cultures perceive each other. Culture is to us what water is to fish. We live and breathe it. Chinese say; men in the game are blind to what men looking on see clearly. This means; you have to be in the same cultural dimension to communicate, to understand and be understood, this can be achieved with awareness and sacrifice.
Meyer’s book contains many examples of cultural differences. I would like to start by describing two of them that caught my attention and clearly explained the differences. Meyer asked a staff member at the hotel where he was staying in New Delhi to describe the location of a restaurant he wanted to go. The attendant replied; “It’s very easy, there is a sign just to the left of the hotel, it will never go unnoticed”. “Come on, show me some” Meyer said to the attendant. They walked out the door with the hotel clerk, crossed the street together, turned left, walked for 10 minutes, slicing through the bustling traffic on the pavement, through many side streets and past countless cattle on the road until finally just beyond a bank, on the second floor of a yellow stucco building, above a grocery store, they saw the small sign with the name of the restaurant in the place. Meyer was surprised at the difference between the address description and the route followed; then he explains the main reason: in US and Anglo-Saxon cultures people are trained to communicate verbatim and as clearly as possible; good communication is all about intelligibility and clarity, in such cultures the responsibility of getting the message right is on the sender. By contrast, in many Asian cultures, including India, China, Japan, and Indonesia, messages are often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines and good communication is implicit and layered. It relies heavily on subtext and the responsibility for delivering the message is shared between the sender and the receiver. This restaurant’s address description reminded me of that when I was young, when I asked the nomads in the Taurus Mountains for directions, they said “hoenguerde” meaning just over there and then we reached behind many hills.
In the second example, Meyer notes that while Americans focus on individual characters apart from their settings, Asians focus more on the connections between the backgrounds and the main characters. The study by Professor Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda among Japanese and American participants is interesting in this respect. As can be seen in the photographs, the definition of portrait is quite different for Americans and Japanese (4).
Meyer gives the example of Taoism for Asia, stating that the ways in which different societies analyze the world are basically based on philosophical roots. Taoism which influenced Buddhism and Confucianism, states that the universe works in harmony that the seemingly opposite forces, yin and yang, whose exact counterparts are darkness and light, are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent; in other words, it argues that various elements are interdependent. Therefore, in order to encourage, manage or persuade someone, it is necessary to explain the big picture and show how all the pieces fit together. If individuals don’t understand what they’re working on and how the pieces fit together, they don’t feel comfortable or cannot be persuaded to take action. In these societies, it is said that certain division of labor and individual incentive schemes do not work.
Meyer who explains that managers and team members who are unaware of cultural differences often experience frustration and difficulty in achieving organizational goals, describes the eight scales in her culture map model
as follows. Meyer does not specify all countries place on the scale in her book. There are opinions on this subject in the book ‘Leading a Board’. Here I share my views from a broad perspective:
1. “Communication: Low Context and High Context”
For example, people in the United States communicate openly stating briefly but clearly what they are talking about. They describe the steps and the work in detail as if talking to a simpleton. As for the Turkish, the proverb, “no description needed for the wise” is just the opposite, but not very useful in business. People from Asian cultures such as Japan and India communicate indirectly, relying on recipients to read between the lines and interpret the message correctly. Especially and mostly the Japanese use symbols and exemplars. The USA is a “low context” culture that values simple, direct and concise communication. “High-context” cultures on the other hand have a long common history. The US remains at the bottom of the context. Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom are slightly higher in context. It is a high context culture prevailing in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and China. Italy, Spain, France, Mexico and Brazil are in the middle. The British are less low context than the US. Brits often think that Americans don’t understand their jokes. Americans on the other hand are not sure when the British are joking. Communicating between cultures is difficult even if these cultures share the same language. In Turkey, we do not choose open and clear communication, we communicate more indirectly and implicitly. The reason for this is our common cultural background and our expression skills mixed with proverbs.
2. “Assessment: Direct Negative Feedback / Indirect Negative Feedback”
American managers learn to give hardened negative feedback with positive supportive language. Indirect negative feedback approaches are sensitive, diplomatic and specific; these managers take care to make positive comments as well as provide corrective information. In contrast, the French evaluative style is direct, giving frank and honest feedback that is not tempered by praise. In some countries it is socially acceptable to give feedback in front of others. But a culture’s communication style is not necessarily compatible with an appraisal approach. Some countries, such as Israel, have a high-context style of communication but give direct negative feedback. In Turkey, we often find it difficult to say negative things directly to a person’s face, here we prefer an indirect language. Criticism in the presence of others is considered dishonorable. But it differs according to people’s understanding and social status. For example, it is said, “you ask a lazy guy do something, all you’ll get is advice”.
3. “Persuasion: Principles First / Practices First”
Two styles of reasoning at opposite ends of the persuasion dimension are “principles first” or “practices first”. In the “Principles First” approach, a theory is developed and then supporting facts and conclusions are presented. In “Practices First”, patterns or facts in the real world are observed first and then conclusions are drawn. People from cultures like Russia, Italy, and France want to know the reason before they act. In countries that say practice first, such as the USA and Canada more emphasis is placed on how to achieve a goal. Most people use both approaches at different times in various situations. For Turkey, practice comes first in daily life and there is a situational use in business life. They are called “moments of wisdom”. It is said that “a word to the wise is enough”
4. “Leader: Egalitarian / Hierarchical”
This is actually Hofstede’s power distance scale. Egalitarian and Hierarchical Leadership are two poles. Like Japan, China, and India, Mexico is on the hierarchical side of the leadership scale. At the egalitarian extreme are Denmark, Sweden and Israel. Near the middle is the UK and USA. For example, those working in egalitarian societies act autonomously; they communicate directly with people at different levels of authority. In hierarchical societies however, they cannot afford to contradict the boss. Turkey is on the hierarchical side. This also explains what we understand of pluralist democracy.
5. “Decision Making: Top-Down / Consensus-Based”
Most egalitarian cultures value consensual decisionmaking and most hierarchical societies believe in top-down decision making. In the question of who decides and how, the USA follows an egalitarian philosophy, but the responsible person makes the decisions on behalf of the group. At the other extreme, Germany stands as a hierarchical culture that makes decisions by mutual consent. In cultures that decide by consensus, such as Japan, the process of reaching a decision is long and everyone has a contribution. Once the group has made a decision it is final and ready to implement. In top-down cultures, the supervisor makes a decision quickly. England and the USA are in the middle. India, China and Nigeria are at the other extreme. Although I am not entirely sure, I think that Turkey is at the point of being hierarchical but seeking consensus when necessary.
6. “Trusting: Task-Based / Relationship-Based”
There are two types of trust; “cognitive trust” and “emotional trust”. Cognitive trust is our confidence in someone else’s abilities to do a job or perform a task. Emotional trust comes from our love for someone. In some cultures such as the United States people, with the “business is business” feeling, distinguish the two forms of trust from each other in the workplace. It is emotional trust that plays a big role in business transactions in countries like Nigeria or India as business is personal.
The trust scale has two ends: “task-based” and “relationship-based”. Task-based cultures such as Denmark and the Netherlands distinguish between work and personal relationships. You build trust by performing well in these countries. Business relationships are shaped and grown around functionality and mutual benefit and usually end when the business ends. In relationship-based cultures such as China and Saudi Arabia, the line between work and personal relationships is blurred; trust builds as people get to know each other. In these cultures business interactions are based on personal and real relationships. Time spent outside meeting rooms often provides the most valuable opportunity for interaction. Meals, long conversations are personal and socializing is a priority. Once people have made personal connections, it’s time to do business. A “relationship-based” culture is dominant in Turkey. But “relationship” doesn’t mean trust right away. First “establishing a relationship” is accepted as a duty, as if “trust is sought”. As you get to know each other either “trust” is formed or the relationship is broken. For example, when they come together in Anatolia in meetings, after greeting each other, they sit silently for a while and look at each other, then say “merhaba”, exchange salutations with each other before the meeting, which will start with a proposal by the eldest or the authority figure. On the other hand with the Hijaz Arabs, this takes place in the form of asking about family, kids, business to each other without waiting for an answer, just for the sake of it. In the old comics, however, the white man, to establish a relationship with the American Indians, first greeted them with their own greeting “HUGH!”
7. “Conflict: Conflict / Conflict Avoidance”
How people discuss ideas, resolve disagreements and conflicts between them varies from country to country. In France, for example, they are comfortable challenging each other’s ideas without fear of damaging their business relationship. France falls on the “Confrontational” side of the scale of conflict. In “Conflict Avoidance” countries like Japan, people think that disagreements harm group cohesion. Conflict avoidance culture is essential in Turkey. Arabs on the other hand openly express their conflicting opinions
, but avoid fighting.
8. “Timing: Right Time / Flexible Time”
The working day in Germany starts on time. In Nigeria adapting to the environment is more important than starting on time. In Right Time societies, workplaces, and employees stick to schedules, respect work deadlines, and focus on one task at a time. In Flexible Time cultures, the workflow is variable, the schedule is adaptaple and many activities happen at the same time. In flexible time cultures, meetings often stray from the agenda, and people see such changes as natural and necessary. Effective managers allow and encourage productive diversions. Although we try to be strict in meetings in Turkey, the approach of “the caravan gets straight along the way” (make it up as you go along) prevails in project management.
As you know, we bought Godiva in 2008 and United Biscuit in 2014 and became the third largest biscuit company in the world. Our organization was not global when we made these acquisitions. Realizing this organizational change was not easy. Currently, our global employees are citizens of more than 70 different countries. For example, I speak English even with Turks in global meetings or in gatherings where there are people who do not speak Turkish. I do my correspondence in English. But now there is a fashion to learn Turkish among all other employees.
My foreign colleagues still call me “Bey (Sir)” following the dominant behavior of my associates that I could not prevent. This keeps me from being one of the team. We still maintain meaningless forms of address and hierarchy in corporate mailing correspondence; I couldn’t manage to overcome it. We have two truly global companies since 2016, Godiva and pladis. In that year, we hosted our executives from all over the world at Yildiz Holding in Istanbul. I wanted them to see the heart of our work, our home and get to know us better. We operate in more than 120 countries. We have employees from different cultures on all continents around the world.
The number of our employees at Yildiz Holding has reached 70thousand, we are working to improve on how we can understand and agree with each other. We create a common language, a way of doing business. First of all, we have a philosophy, #makehappybehappy. Our main target is G0AL21. These letters and numbers are acronyms, telling us what to do and how. G0AL21 actually tells us what and how each of us and all of us collectively can succeed and be a leader. It tells us how we can become “Leaders in Market” by working together flawlessly on the field. Otherwise, how could we get tens of thousands of people from 70 different passports to work together to make our 4 billion potential consumers happy! (https://en.muratulker.com/y/our-new-roadmap-g0al21-in-detail/)
In a recent global meeting, I looked at friends from different parts of the world and remembered our first export attempt in early 1970s. In 1974, Kuwait was the first gulf country which we exported to. We have factories in Saudi Arabia today, but back then, we had a lot of trouble even selling products. I went to Jeddah in the early 1980s to develop export relations before I had graduated from school. How would I know that I would get scolded as soon as I got there. At that time, the most important task was to deliver our products to the customer, passing them through the port and clearing customs. But there are processes that need to be completed in order to do this, for example we deliver the samples to the official lab. They give ‘salah’ (permission to sell). Otherwise, they come and destroy the goods. There are life/death systems. One day, I went to get the document so what I see, hell breaks loose! They said, “The Chief in the lab is angry, he is looking for Sabri Bey’s son.” I arrived immediately; “I am the son of Sabri Bey,” I said. “Is that you…? If you do this again, I won’t give any permission for the goods like this…” I was reprimanded.
What was it, there is gelatin in the Cokomel, we put the beef gelatin and we wrote it on the label. But the Chief says, you didn’t write 100%, you cannot clear the goods,” he says. Anyway, we apologized, he got over his anger and we were able to clear the goods. We label the next shipment 100% beef gelatin. But anyway, we couldn’t get along with that man; I asked what I should do to get rid of this man’s anger. I had to hand over the business to an agent. Then I asked him about the transactions, how you do it? He said; Arabic is a beautiful language. It is necessary to use the subtleties of this language. How so? I don’t know Arabic well enough anyway. Of course in those years Erin Meyer had not yet created a model that we could read and learn.
It turns out that the person from the agent knocks on the door of the chief and first reads a beautiful couplet from an Arabic poem outside the door. Then he greets with “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” (welcome and hello). Then he starts by asking how your health is, how your children are, and how your work is going. Then the Chief asks the same things. After that, it’s time to talk business. When we start talking business directly, it becomes inappropriate. The word I hear most in Arabic is ‘let me tell you’. You will definitely listen to what he says so that there can be a rapprochement. I also remember that in the early days I used to starve in business meetings. In Turkey, you chat while you eat at lunch meeting and you usually talk about business when you go to coffee. In Arab countries on the other hand business is discussed until midnight, but when the work is done, they sit down to dinner. When they finish their meals, they wash their hands and leave. It is shameful to stay after a meal. They put the dinner nearly at midnight. I had a hard time at first because I didn’t know. Today I know how to do business with people of almost in every country. Some like a smiling face, some need a sullen face.
For Americans, smiling is essential. A cleaning lady taught me this! I was in the hospital in America. My mother was sick, I was distressed. A woman mopping the floor in the hallway said to me early in the morning, “Why don’t you say good morning to me. You’re walking around with a sullen face,” she exclaimed. Americans definitely want a smile. In Spain, Iran and Turkey, a sullen face is credible. Every culture is different. For example, meetings with Turks, Italians and Arabs are very long. All three are bargainers. Sometimes they even bargain just for the sake of bargaining, but with these, the meeting is fun. The most formal and short meeting, although quiet and somewhat boring, is with the Japanese. I wrote the jujitsu technique on bargaining, on how to be successful despite this feature of the Japanese. (https://en.muratulker.com/y/a-good-bargaining-method-is-possible-with-the-satisfaction-of-the-other-party/
The German Chamber of Commerce used to give seminars to German exporting companies on how to set prices for investment goods. At that time, they would invite us as members of our German company there. Their aim was to advise companies on pricing by considering bargaining. In other words, Turks are very hard negotiaters, you make your price 1/3 more so that you can get the job done with a big cut… But sometimes it is also calculated otherwise, let’s say, only two companies from Turkey can buy the machines you sell. But 10 companies from the British will be buyers. I can sell the machines to the British for 100 units each. They can take. But no one can buy from Turks for 100 units. In that case, I must offer lower price for Turkish at least to catch an opportunity to sell one company in Turkey. So, it’s better than not selling at all. In other words, it can be an advantage in bargaining to take into account the unique cultural and corporate conditions of the countries. I remember we traded a lot this way. As seen in Meyer’s cultural scales, Germany is the country to be taken as an example in terms of timely and planned behavior in all matters.
One of the memories I’ll never forget about cultural differences is that we inspected a factory in the Netherlands during a night shift. The company that would supply us the machine used in this factory arranged the visit. I wondered why we were wandering like fugitives at night; it turns out they couldn’t get permission from the factory manager. Then he said: “These are Arabs, they are very rich. If they set up this factory, they will make you the manager of the factory.” Thereupon, the factory manager gave permission to visit at night to avoid attracting attention. I tried to apply Meyer’s cultural scale to this subject, but I was not very successful. Some attractive offers, mood and physiological needs are equally important to all people and this was a good example. But, when it comes to hard bargaining, I don’t know if we can pass up the Arabs and Italians.
An important aspect of doing intercultural business is gift giving. I usually give away books and trinkets. The Japanese give dolls as gifts in a showcase specific to their culture. The Dutch brought a miniature of an antique house from previous centuries. Then he would say, “Next time I’ll bring that house next to that too” and the street would be completed. Arabs, on the other hand, if you have been in business for a long time, will accept you as a family and give you a souvenir as a gift, for example, a partner gave me something of his late father. But in general, the scale of the gifts from Arabs is large. For example, there is a tradition of sending dates during Ramadan. But it’s not as simple as that, they send crates full of them, bless them.
Culture affects the way people live and work. In order to succeed, managers have to understand human nature and personality differences as well as knowing the culture (5). By identifying common points without conflicting with people’s cultures, you should be able to come together in maximum, not minimum, and lock your team to a common goal.
Your Chinese CEO may say let’s decorate according to Feng Shui, while Hindus do not want to consume animal food. Religious belief and culture are often intertwined. If you leave Turks on their own, they would perform ablution and walk around with their sleeves rolled up. We provide the necessary environment in each of our companies for people to practice their religious beliefs. We Muslims are more sensitive about our practices during the day. But our measure should be universal: Your freedom ends where another’s begins. The key is to be respectful to one another. Respect and trust are essential; in essence, it is to be respectful to every culture, every belief, and to trust one another.
Note: This article is open source and can be cited by mentioning the author. Does not require copyright.
(1)Meyer, E., (2014).The Culture Map, THY Publications, pgs.257.
(2)Nisbett, R., (2017). The Geography of Thought (Dusuncenin Cografyasi), Varlik Publications, pg.200.
(3) Hofstede, G., (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, NY: McGraw Hill.
(4)Nisbett R., and M. Takahiko, (2003). “Culture and Point of View”, PNAS 100, no.19, Sept.
(5)Trompenaars F. and Hampden-Turner, (2020), Riding the Waves of Culture. Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 4th Ed., NY: McGraw Hill, pg.432.