Using Stereotypes Wisely: German Planning vs. Russian Improvisation

Meet Ralf.

Ralf is a German manager and the head of business development. His company is expanding into Russia.

Vlad, the Russian project manager, calls him one morning from St. Petersburg, where he’s aiding the opening of the new office.

“Planning is underway,” Vlad confirms. “Everything will be completed by the deadline.”

Ralf asks some follow-up questions, pressing for further details to ensure things are, indeed, on track, but he finds that despite Vlad’s initial assurances, his responses are vague.

“At this point, only the rough planning is done,” Vlad admits, adding, “but everything is under control.”

Needless to say, after this phone call, Ralf does not feel confident that his ducks are in a row, while Vlad feels he was being interrogated.

Stereotype: Russians Don’t Like to Plan

When Ralf shares his concerns with his boss, he says: “Don’t worry, the office will be finished according to schedule. Russians aren’t good at planning. They say that if you plan too much, you can’t demonstrate your improvisational skills.”

Although Ralf’s boss employed a stereotype to placate his worries, there is truth in this stereotype.

According to scientific studies, Russians generally do not prioritize detailed planning as much as Germans or Austrians. They’d prefer to resolve issues as they occur instead of predicting and investing time in future issues.

Ralf’s boss responded with a stereotype, but his response alleviated Ralf’s stress and may have diffused misunderstanding and potential conflict in the company’s cross-cultural business relations.

One reason this stereotype could be considered wise is that it was explanatory; it allowed Ralf to better understand the rationale behind his Russian counterpart’s behaviors.

Stereotype: Germans Like Detailed Planning

Back in St. Petersburg, Vlad sensed Ralf’s lack of confidence in his management of the project. Being a bit annoyed, he, too, mentioned the exchange to his boss.

Vlad’s boss tells him: “Germans like to plan. Their plans are concrete and detailed, down to the letter. They anticipate potential issues and their variable responses to these issues in order to use time efficiently and reduce risk.”

This is another stereotype. It’s generally true that Germans view time as a resource that shouldn’t be wasted, hence they invest in detailed planning.

This, too, is backed by data making it, more or less, the norm.

This is one way in which stereotypes can aid mutual understanding, allay worries and unnecessary stress, and prevent cross-cultural conflict.

Stereotypes Exaggerate the Norm

Despite the sometimes-usefulness of stereotypes, it’s important to note that stereotypes aren’t all-encompassing and tend to exaggerate norms.

Not every German is a planner and not every Russian likes to improvise.

To illustrate this exaggeration, consider these graphs.

monkey_charts_CMYK-16

The top graph shows how Russians view their own penchant for planning. They acknowledge that improvisation is valued as much as planning, leaving the curve centered.

The next graph shows the Russian perspective on the German penchant for planning. Russians view Germans as planning fanatics, leading to most Germans falling under this stereotypical umbrella right of center.

In the end, the reality is more like the last chart. Germans are, on average, slightly more adept at planning than Russians, and the German company culture often produces and favors managers who work accordingly. However, this stereotype doesn’t apply so severely to all Germans, though the Russian perspective exaggerates that view.

Point being, take stereotypes with a grain of salt.

Their primary use in business management should be to provide generic odds and a general understanding of the values a culture prioritizes.

But don’t let stereotypes color your opinion about another individual in an ugly way, especially if their actions show you the opposite.

As Maya Angelou wisely wrote,

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.

Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.

German vs. Japanese Nose: Scent Preferences = Food Preferences

Whether you like the smell of wintergreen or marzipan, cheese or fresh cut grass, lemon or borscht, your scent preferences are likely impacted by your culture.

Last week, we talked about how that which surrounds us often influences our favored scents.

It may be onions prompting attraction, cow manure implying success, or body odor indicating the spirit.

Whatever the case, our noses seem to know our culture.

First-World Cultures

Many of the scent preferences and concepts we discussed last week surrounded second- or third-world cultures, so we might expect the norms and preferences to differ more from those of first-world cultures than two first-world cultures would from each other.

But what happens when we compare the scent preferences of the first-world? Are they similar? Do first-world cultures like the same scents?

The short answer is no.

Of course, these are general claims; scent preferences differ depending on personal tastes.

But, generally…

Americans like the smell of wintergreen; the British don’t.

Germans like the smell of marzipan; the Japanese don’t.

The intrigue regarding these cultural differences in scent preferences led to a study that dove right into these comparisons. This is what it found.

Japan vs. Germany

Japanese researcher, Saho Ayabe-Kanamura, explored Japan and Germany’s differences in scent preferences and perception of everyday odors.

germanjapanesechart.jpg

As you can see in the chart, the study found that participants preferred fragrances of food odors that they thought most edible. They tended to rate these edible odors higher.

This is not unusual. We are what we eat. And the food we consume is often a deeply acquired part of primary socialization.

Slimy Snails

One example of this: I had dinner with an American senior manager at a French restaurant.

We decided to dive into French dining culture headfirst, and we ordered escargot as an appetizer.

I asked my American colleague: “So how does it taste?”

He answered: “For you, these are escargot. For me, they will stay what they have always been: slimy snails.”

Americans will probably always taste slimy snails when chewing on escargot, and this is due to their primary socialization.

The same goes with scent. Once a preference is set, it’s not very adaptable.