Don’t get upset. It’s not deliberate.

When working with other cultures, we often get surprised, confused or even upset about the behaviors of others. At the start of each training, I always discuss 5 principles of intercultural effectiveness. Principles that sound like open doors, but in daily reality at the work floor these are not that obvious. Discussing these principles is always fun, as people start to see that their response to other cultures is often quite ineffective.

The 5 Principles of Intercultural Effectiveness

1. They just play by different rules
2. I just don’t understand enough
3. He has good intentions
4. Moral judgment does not help
5. It’s not deliberate

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1. They just play by different rules

Heinrich looked at me with an expressionless face, and said again: “I will need to go to my superiors with this”. For the past 10 minutes I had tried to convince him we can solve this ourselves. Yet he was determined: his superiors needed to step in, and he himself would not continue the discussions with me.

Heinrich is a colleague from Germany. The rules of the game are different in Germany than in The Netherlands. Just like the Germans have learned their rules (consciously and unconsciously) while growing up, so do the Dutch. Years of practicing and conditioning lead to firmly established rules of socially acceptable behavior. The rules we have on both sides of the border are just different.

And certainly when it comes to dealing with hierarchy, the rules differ. Heinrich’s rule is that when things are critical and important decisions need to be taken, it is better to include higher-level management. My rule is that I should settle critical and important things myself, and only inform my superiors afterwards about the end result.

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We both just play by different rules.





2. I just don’t understand enough

We trusted the Indian party that had been contracted to run our back-office operations. The company had major global clients to run similar operations for, and the feedback we had received was that this company had their act together. They worked with competent and highly educated Indian software experts, and proved very customer focused in all discussions we had with them so far.

One thing was curious. Every time we brought up that we expected their people to be pro-active and take initiative on process improvements, the meeting got tense, and they diverted my remarks to a higher-level manager, that would only join our discussions the next day. This happened continuously, and I got irritated. More and more. A lack of sleep and tiredness from the long flight did not help either. By the end of the day I was angry, and clearly indicated to my Indian counterpart that with this attitude we would not be able to continue our discussions.

My mistake. I learned later that in this company behavioral expectations were always to be discussed with the other manager. This was common practice. And while I accused my Indian counterpart of hiding something for me, I should have been wiser. The best way would have been to notice my discomfort and irritation, accept it as a reaction of myself to unclear situations, and accept that apparently my frame of reference was not sufficient to understand what was going on.

When accepting that your own frame of reference currently has limitations, you keep a much more productive and constructive attitude. I’ll remember next time I travel to Delhi.

3. He has good intentions

This was unfair. When I asked him whether their company would deliver in time, he always said, “Yes”. And when the deadline was there, they did not deliver. In a gentle – yet firm – way I explained to him that he should not hide things from me, and that I would escalate the situation next time he would lie to me. This statement obviously did not help my relationship with Mr. Pradev, the project manager from India I had now been working with for just more than a year.

Only later did I learn that when you cannot deliver on time, your first priority is with fixing the problem in the interest of the client (me in this case). What I didn’t see is that Mr. Pradev had hired 20 extra consultants to work overtime, and continue project work in the late evening and night. They worked very hard, but some major technical difficulties they could not overcome. Mr. Pradev and his team were very determined to do a good job.

In my frustration, I had built up a different mental picture of Mr. Pradev in my mind. The picture of a distrustful project manager who was lying to me, and who was deliberately hiding the truth.

He was not. His intentions were very good, he was working very hard and did all he could to help me. In the way everybody would do so in his culture.

4. Moral judgment does not help

Schermafbeelding 2015-05-20 om 11.42.40Carlos is a great engineer from Brazil: bright, sharp and funny. I like to work with him. My main problem is his chaotic style. Our meetings never start on time, and when we agree to work on something at 10, I’m lucky if he shows up before 11. This is a waste of my time, and very inefficient. The chaotic style – that I see with many of Carlos’ colleagues as well, is just not good. This is not how you should work.



What happens here is that I mix up fact and moral judgment. Fact is that I am there sharp at 10, and that Carlos is there at 10:50. Moral judgment is my statement that Carlos is chaotic, inefficient and not well organized.

I have made my culture’s characteristics superior, and came to picture Carlos’ Brazilian culture as morally inferior. It’s just no good what they do. The way we work here in the West is how one should work, if only in Brazil they would learn this…

Avoid moral judgment. Stay with the facts, put them on the table, and start asking questions: “Carlos, how does this work for you, tell me!”

5. It’s not deliberate

Jane is an English product manager: very experienced, knowledgeable and determined to reach the top. Her drive helps to bring new products to market quickly. In our meeting a few weeks ago, I asked her to show me the promotion plan for my new book. She answered – in a typical English way: “It’s difficult in this stage to be very precise about that. The book has lots of potential if we carefully position it, such that the target audience will recognize the added value.” This was not the answer I was waiting for. I wanted to see the plan. And the more I pressed her for a concrete answer and a clear plan, the more vague and elaborate her answers became.

Typical English, I thought. Why don’t they just say what they mean? Why all these complicated, long sentences? Why beating around the bush all the time? It’s something I don’t like about her.

What I need to realize – each time this happens – is that the English don’t deliberately speak this way. It’s not that they first think what they want to say, and then translate it to this language that I perceive as vague. This is how they speak. Not deliberately, but automatically, as this is how they’ve been raised. My direct Dutch style is not better or worse, it’s just different.

When I’m very direct and blunt, it’s not deliberate either. It’s just how I have learned to communicate.

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