Experiences

“Only he who knows his opponent and himself well can be triumphant in a thousand battles.”
Chinese war tactic
 
If this could be transferred into the intercultural specifications, it would mean, “Only he who knows himself and his foreign partners well can reach a sympathetic and fruitful collaboration.”
Source: A. Thomas

Content

Out of the everyday business life

At the beginning, everything is new and strange

Culture shock and other tricky situations

Different cultures, different customs

Vacationing in your homeland

Differences in communication

The return home


Out of the everyday business life

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The leader of a German business delegation does not prepare himself for a trip to China, because, according to him, “a person is a person – the Chinese are no different than we are.” He does put the time and effort into preparing a PowerPoint presentation, because he is convinced he will be successful this way. His Chinese hosts receive him well because he is a high-ranking representative from Germany. In China there is a large worth placed on the social hierarchy and the German guest always receives preferential treatment. To the Chinese, this is just a part of good business relations. Because of the special orientation of Chinese business, the German businessman does not understand and becomes more and more impatient. He feels their behaviour – unnecessary fuss and worthless chitchat – do not pertain to this business at hand. His reaction is uncomprehending and he repeatedly asks when they can finally get down to business. After a few days, he returns to Europe with an unsigned contract. (Source: A. Thomas) 


A major hotel chain chose to develop a new hotel in Tahiti. The developer contracted with a Tahitian skilled in carving large wooden totems. The hotel desired a number of these totems to provide the site with local island atmosphere. The Tahitian quoted a price for carving the first totem and then higher and higher prices for each succeeded totem. This, of course, astonished the hotel developer, who asserted that this was no way to do business. Didn’t the Tahitian understand about quantity discounts? The Tahitian artisan, equally mystified, also tried to explain: “No, it is you who doesn’t understand. Carving each additional totem becomes less fun.” (Source: N. Adler)


I have a story from a German auto repairman. A machine is broken, and a complicated repair was necessary. Until the servicemen could have arrived, it would have been one week. A Hungarian co-worker could fix the problem because he fixed two loose wires with an adhesive tape. Then, the head firm conducted an audit, and uncovered what he has done. The person in charge then criticized the man from Hungary. It is understandable that one must keep certain standards – but, if the work needs to last a week, one needs to weigh the different possibilities. The Hungarian man had a talent for improvising. This is a good thing, but the cultures need to approach each other – especially in the workplace. (Source: A. Bürkl)


Once we had a very important meeting with the general director of a big Russian bank. He looked very busy when we came to his office. He was talking all the time to other people and didn’t look very friendly and hospitable. When we went to the restaurant his behaviour changed completely. He appeared to be a very generous and attentive host. We talked a lot about private things and about Austria in a very relaxed atmosphere when suddenly he asked three precise and direct questions about the deal. I quickly set up my mind and was ready to negotiate. But no more questions came up. We continued talking about unimportant things. I was very surprised. (Source: A. Samoilova) 


I meet an Austrian client for the sixth time in as many months. He greets me as Herr Smith. Using my North American perspective, I interpret his very formal greeting as a warning that he either dislikes me or is uninterested in developing a closer business relationship with me. However, I have misinterpreted the situation. I have inappropriately used the norms for North American business behaviour; which are more informal and demonstrative (by the sixth meeting, I would say “Good morning, Fritz”, not “Good morning, Herr Ranschburg”), to interpret the Austrian’s more formal behaviour (“Good morning, Herr Smith”). Using North American’s interpretations, businesspeople only maintain formal behaviour after the first few meetings if they either dislike or distrust their associates. Such misinterpretation could jeopardize both the business transaction and the relationship. (Source: N. Adler)


A Swiss executive waits more than an hour past the appointed time for his Spanish colleague to arrive and to sign a major supply contract. In his impatience he concludes that Spaniards must be lazy and totally unconcerned about business. The Swiss executive has misevaluated his colleague by negatively comparing the colleague’s behaviour to his own culture’s standards for business punctuality. Implicitly, he has labelled his own culture’s behaviour as good (“The Swiss arrive on time, especially for important meetings, and that is good”) and the other culture’s behaviour as bad (“The Spanish do not arrive on time and that is bad”). (Source: N. Adler)


At the beginning, everything is new and strange

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“At first, when one steps out onto the street, one has no idea where to go. Everything is strange – nothing has meaning. One must slowly develop a network of meaning and preferences for certain places. Often, these certain places are where one has had some kind of special experience.”

“I had the same thought over and over: Everything is so strange to me, I just want to go home. But I knew precisely that in four years time I would not want to leave because I would have become accustomed to life here. The discrepancies between these feelings were a huge burden on my shoulders.”

“Every day I went exploring. Everything was so beautiful and interesting! And so different! When I went grocery shopping, I always chose new products. This sometimes went wrong, because I could not understand the descriptions on the packaging, but it was always fun to try something new. I felt very unencumbered and free! It was great to throw all of my old habits overboard and try new things!”

“At the beginning of my time in a new country, I always go to clubs, volunteer groups, training groups, children’s groups, sports clubs etc. Through this I make contacts and can set up a network in my new surroundings. I need this in order to orientate myself. Otherwise one just hangs around if one does not belong anywhere.”

“It was easy to make contacts through our children’s school. Because the school was small, the solidarity was strong and we soon felt like one big family!”


Culture shock and other tricky situations

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“Arrival in New Delhi at dawn: Intolerable heat surrounds you completely. Everywhere people are squatting or standing. They look different, move differently, speak differently and are clothed differently – with many going barefoot. Their complexions are much darker than those found in Europe. The roads are lined with endless rows of barracks and carton cottages, where families are forced to live. Most sleep on the sidewalks. At street intersections, beggars and mutilated children sell snacks; old women, dressed miserably, stand with empty stares. Everywhere people, noise, turmoil and cars honking their horns. Other smells, other sounds. A completely different world.”

“We got a flat tire in the middle of the Rajasthan desert. We had driven for a long time through areas that were deserted, but as we made our short stop, our car became surrounded by people. They leaned against the car, staring expectantly. They pressed so hard against the car that it was nearly impossible to move. Being in such close proximity to a complete stranger was extremely unpleasant.”

“In Mexico everything is more relaxed substantially. The stereotype of the eternal “mañana” (tomorrow) is taken very seriously. Working hours are flexible, punctuality is am unknown word and promises or appointments are rarely kept. Therefore, large importance is placed on interpersonal contacts. Everyone chats during the day and appointments with colleagues outside working hours are expected if one wants to bring something to the company.” (Silvia)


Different cultures, different customs

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“In New Delhi, every day on the way to work, we drove by the poor who lived in carton houses on the roadside. We also drove by the pitiful looking beggars who stood at crossroads. We felt much sympathy for them. How could one live out in the open and with so little? Gradually, and through many conversations with our Indian friends, we were able to gain an understanding about the Indian caste system. We learned that there are no connections between the castes and the “Untouchables” are completely outside the system. The concept of empathy does not exist. This was difficult for us to understand. It became clear to me that the empathy, which is so important in the European-Christian culture, does not exist in other cultures.”

“In New Delhi my son was invited to the birthday party of one of his friends from the neighborhood. Since the location was not far away, following my European habit, I walked there, pushing my son in his stroller. I walked down the dusty unpaved roads, and during the walk I began to feel less and less comfortable. Peoples populating the residential streets stared at me: house guards, house staff, beggars, merchants and children. No one was like me, who embodied a Mam Sahib, a European, who was in a certain social position, and walking by foot with a small child. When I arrived, I received a most friendly greeting. The hostess, a very elegant and attractive northern Indian, asked me where my ‚Aya’, my nanny was. She was clearly surprised that I did not have her with me. Naively I said, ‚at home’. She didn’t respond. I noticed then that all of the nannies were together in a room with the children, and the mothers, in a different room, were talking while having tea and sweets. I found myself in a dilemma because I wanted to talk with the other mothers, but I didn’t want to leave my son alone with the other children and the ‚Ayas’.

I had committed two mistakes: First, I went by foot with my child through the streets of India. In India, one walks only if one can’t afford other means of transportation. Second, I had arrived at the party without my nanny, who was responsible for taking care of my son. In a country such as India, the social hierarchies and social rolls are very important. A foreigner is often forgiven for a cultural mistake, but at the same time he is often labeled as clueless and lacking culture!”

“After a beautiful day out in southern Finland, we wanted to go for a drink. We assumed that we would find a small café, perhaps with terrace, along the beach. This was not the case. We searched for a while, but couldn’t find anywhere to sit and have a drink by the beach. We found many places where one can go right up to the ocean’s edge, many harbors and many footpaths – yet, no café. We were extremely disappointed. It was not what we expected and we couldn’t satisfy our wish to end this beautiful day with a drink. Instead, we were forced to head directly for home at the end of the day.”

“In New Delhi we were often invited out with other Indians. Often they were generous with invitations and there were over one hundred guests. No one was ever allowed to arrive early, though. If the invitation stated 8pm, no one was to arrive before 9pm. To start with, everyone had drinks and snacks. One circulated and talked with all the people in attendance. The meal, usually a large buffet, was not served until around midnight. When one finished, one placed his/her empty dish under the table, and left soon after. I did not like these kind of invitations. Everyone stood around awkwardly, stuffed themselves with snacks and ate so late that it was difficult to sleep afterwards. And – to me – it seemed so impolite to leave right after the dinner!”

“During our time in New Delhi, I was often at my Indian friend’s home. When my friend’s mother, who lived with my friend’s brother, became ill, it was natural for my friend to leave work in order to care for her mother. She took vacation and dedicated her time to her loving mother. I was impressed. Who would do such a thing in Europe? The way the older generation in India is being treated had a lasting effect on me. When I came back to Europe I was able to see my own parents and parents-in-law in a different light. I gave them more attention and had far more patience for them. I recognized that there has to be a give and take between the two generations. This experience enriched my life enormously.”
“While in Helsinki, I had to go to the post office. Luckily, I already knew that I had to take a number. Many people were waiting ahead of me. Everyone was standing silently, waiting for his or her number to be called. Sometimes someone with a lower number had already left. In this case, the number was called multiple times and we had to wait in the meantime. At least one or two minutes would pass. But no one would let this waste of time disturb them.”


Omani beim Tee

Vacationing in your homeland

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“During our vacation in our homeland, the Austrian hospitality was quite noticeable. The waiters are very friendly, even asking if we had any other wishes. Once, in a Viennese coffee house – the coffeehouse culture is always what we miss while being abroad – we ordered two coffees. When the waiter brought them, we wanted to pay immediately. Our waiter said “Drink your coffees in peace. Paying can come later.” When he said this, we knew that we were “home” again.”

“We drove from Helsinki to Vienna. Before we got to the Czech-Austrian border, we could already see a long line of cars. Suddenly, we were taken over by two cars heading towards the border station. Then, many other cars broke out of the line as well. Around the station, a cluster of cars had already formed. Drivers would get out, yell and gesture violently. Loud voices, horns and insults could be heard all around. We were surprised and simultaneously new that we were back in Austria! In Finland, everyone approached these situations with much more discipline.”  


Differences in communicating

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“In Germany, what was especially difficult for me, was that no one spoke with their neighbours. One maintains distance! This is “respecting the other’s privacy”. There, one can beat his wife half to death – and no one interferes. For us Americans, this is simply incomprehensible.” (Steve)

“In a group of French women, I was the only Austrian. I was new in the group, but no one asked me concrete questions. In later discussions, the ladies spoke violently and emotionally – often interrupting each other. Their contributions ricocheted off of each other. I realized that in order to join in the conversation, I would have to do so in this same manner.”

“At a dinner in Helsinki, I started up a conversation with the person sitting beside me. The conversation started well, and we soon began talking about our pasts. I began to notice that the pauses in the conversation became more frequent and more uncomfortable. Was I not interesting enough? Had I said something wrong or insulted this person? I was not able to fully understand this situation and was deeply concerned. My partner in conversation assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and that it is normal to have silence.”  


 

The return home

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“Returning home for me was more difficult than leaving. There was no one here with whom I could really relate my experience abroad. Most friends were not interested in what I had experienced! I was deeply sad upon my arrival back home – I missed my international contacts, the interesting life I had been leading, and the conversations in different languages. At home, everyone assumed that I would quickly ‘fold into’ my old day-to-day life.”

“As I returned home after nine years abroad, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. I wasn’t used to speaking German only. Daily life had changed, and I was no longer used to it. It occurred to me that I was neither a tourist nor a foreigner, but I was forced to ask questions as if I were. I found myself in unpleasant situations where different behaviour was expected. I was disconcerted. It was exactly as in a foreign country. I had to learn daily manners all over again.”

“After my return into my “passport-country”, I had the feeling that I did not belong to it. I am fundamentally more open than the others. Continually people would badmouth foreigners. But, after half a year, I felt comfortable again. But, I will always miss my old friends.” (Thomas)