Article by Jinu Jayapalan, General Manager South India at ICUnet.AG
This article was previously published in Copenhagen post, June 2019, under the name "Why are there no mountains in Denmark?"
If you are from a highly hierarchical society and you have relocated to work in Denmark or Sweden, one of the ‘Scandinavian Shocks’ you are going to experience is to understand and adapt to their ‘Flat structure’ system. For example, in a work environment, you might observe a lot of arguments taking place for an extensive period of time. Consequently, you may ask yourself: “Is there anyone here who is going to take some control?” It appears that the Boss is trying to reach a consensus within the team rather than exhibiting his power and put things under his control.
One expat asked a Dane why there are no mountains in Denmark. “We don’t have any”, the Dane replied with a smile and continued ‘because we have a flat structure at work and in nature’. One Chinese guy working in a small recruitment organization in Zealand, a large island part of Denmark, shared his experience. When he joined the company, he was surprised to see that his colleagues called their boss by his first name. He also witnessed many times the employees questioning the boss on certain team decisions. ‘You call this coziness?” he exclaimed, ‘but If I took this approach back to my country it would be a disaster for my professional life”
When I was in Copenhagen I used to visit my friend working as a sales assistant in the Swedish cloth shop Gudrun Sjoeden. Once she introduced me to one of her colleagues who was knitting something next to her. She told me that it was her boss. I was surprised to hear that because I had seen her many times there working as a cashier, occasionally as a sales assistant and, sometimes just cleaning up or arranging the clothes. I originally assumed that she was just a colleague because she was doing all the other jobs a normal employee does.
This ‘egalitarian way’ of working in Denmark and Sweden is a key element to the concept of ‘Hygge in the workplace’. In the United States, generally speaking, the boss has a firm but friendly approach to his or her employees, and ‘individuality’ is prioritized more than ‘group harmony’. First names are used as a common practice. In contrast, an American team who visited their Indian counterparts in Chennai found it hard to understand the strict borders that existed between their Indian managers and team members. When the Americans send emails with some requests, their Indian managers reply by cc’ing a lot of people. When the Americans asked about this, their Indian counterparts replied by stating that it was important that their managers were informed about any correspondence they had received and that managers should also be involved in any discussions concerning the request made via email from their American colleagues.
Another interesting challenge for the Americans was the pronunciation of the Indian names which led them to find a creative solution. They quickly made some nicknames. So Rajesh Ravindran became ‘Rocky’, Mahesh Bhatia was named ‘Mac’, Padmanabhan Krishnamoorthy was called ‘paddy’, Santhosh George became ‘Sandy’ etc. However, some other cultures do not like the idea of getting called by a nickname. For example, the same Indian company had a major German client visit and when she introduced herself as Dr. Hilde Mueller, one of the team members asked her ‘Shall we call you Hildy?” From the look on her face, it was noticeable that she wasn’t happy about it and she politely said no to the request.
Therefore, in Germany, it is very important to use their titles when necessary and the use of nicknames is not much appreciated.
I was discussing the Danish ‘flat structure’ in the workplace with one manager who works for a leading Indian IT outsourcing company. During our conversation, he shared his experience on how he tried to implement a more egalitarian style within his team. He began by removing the necessity of his employees to address him as ‘Sir’. With this objective in mind, he called a team meeting and told them that everyone should call him ‘Manu’ from that moment on. After saying that there was a silence, some people murmured but didn’t speak anything back to him. “And the result was”, he continued with a smile, “they now started to call me by adding ‘Ji’ at the end of my name, like Manuji. In Hindi, the suffix ‘ji’ will automatically make the name respected. Some other team members feel a bit friendlier and called him “Manu bhai”. The Hindi word ‘Bhai’ is used as a suffix to the name to form an affectionate form of address to an older person. So even if he tried to implement the new form of address, the team members still managed to find a way to maintain respect for the hierarchy.
Nevertheless, it is very noticeable that many multinational Indian companies are changing slowly and open to trying new practices. The need for intercultural training as well as an understanding with regards to the differences in leadership styles, appropriate work behaviors, and etiquettes has become more relevant than ever before.
Reflection on why cross-cultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes are essential to successfully communicate and navigate the surrounding diversity.
You and I are witnessing ever-increasing diversity, connectedness, and interdependence of world cultures and economies. Despite political borders, the world became a rather small place. The rise of the internet and digital communication technologies like Zoom, WhatsApp, and Skype obliterated the political borders, literally.
Just think about your experience: did you have foreign students at university? Did you share an accommodation with international students? Do you work with someone from a different culture at work? Do you socialise with people from various different cultural backgrounds? Are there any immigrants in the country you live in?
If you ask me, the answer will be YES to all of these questions.
But how can we successfully deal with this cultural diversity if very frequently we all speak different languages and are seemingly so different? One of the immediate answers that comes to my mind is we need a common language. This solution (lingua franca) has probably been around since the Babel tower incident, if you believe this story. Indeed, a common language, very frequently English, allows us to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and pass messages. In other words, we are made understood. The business gets done. What else do we need?
This solution may seem so simple as, irrespective of cultural background, all of us engage in the same mundane activities: teamwork, leadership, negotiation, communication to name the few. So as long as we can speak the same language and are made understood, it will be sufficient.
However, from my experience of working, studying and living across three different countries, it became apparent that language skills and the fluency are simply not enough to gain success in international encounters. The reason is that what we do massively depends on our cultural background. Our judgments, preferred communication and decision making styles, ouractions are largely affected by hidden cultural codes embedded in the system of values, norms and beliefs that go way beyond linguistic abilities.
Let me share a couple of examples from my own experience. When I came to the UK for the first time, it was a real challenge to reprogram myself and obey untold social, cultural and linguistic norms that govern a big part of the British society. For illustrative purposes I’ll talk about smiling and cultural codes that surround this seemingly simple activity. What can go wrong here?
In reality, the meaning of a smile varies across cultures. To be honest with you, I had to learn to smile at strangers in the UK: at people I know nothing about during street encounters, in the University corridors, to shop assistants and so on. This is one of the norms where smiling is considered to be a sign of politeness, an untold social ritual so to say.
It is quite different to the cultural norm in Russia, where smiling at strangers is not a common practice, especially in larger cities. Rather, a smile is considered a sign of familiarity, an authentic expression of positive emotions. Happiness, most of the time. Hence, smiling at a stranger in a British way can raise a genuine question: “Do we know each other?”, “Is something wrong with me?”, “What’s so funny?”, or “Are you crazy”? In fact, we have a saying that can be translated from Russian as “smiling without a reason is a sign of foolishness”.
Another difference I would like to highlight concerns the practice of feedback giving. In my home country Russia, as well as in India, where I lived for two years, feedback (positive or negative) was given pretty much directly – politely, without offending, but more or less directly. I didn’t have to read between the lines, or guess what I needed to improve at university or at the workplace.
After I started working in the UK, one of the biggest challenges was a different approach to communication and, in particular to feedback giving. In general, communication in the UK is indirect in its nature, especially with regard to saying negative things. In fact, finding out what was wrong or what needs to be improved has usually felt like a treasure hunt because the majority of the feedback given by my British colleagues was cushioned by positive language and understatements.
Looking for subtle cues indicating what needs to be improved took me a while to decipher, and despite living in the UK for almost 9 years I am still learning. Some of the cues suggesting that something is not right could be as follows: “I only have a few minor suggestions”, “that’s not bad”, “quite good”, and my favourite of them all “interesting”. In Russian context I would probably take all those comments at face value.
Cultures also can affect things such as tolerance to change, emotional expressivity, body language, humour, attitudes to personal space, approaches to teamwork, decision making, interruptions, silence, relationships and many more. These subtle and frequently hidden differences hold a potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings, and serious conflicts.
Clearly, despite being an essential condition of working across cultures, having a common language is just not enough. Understanding how language is used in social context, and the ability to navigate hidden cultural influences is no less important. In fact, cross-cultural competence is listed as one of the 21st century skills that employees consider extremely valuable.
So developing socio-cultural understanding through acquiring intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes is essential to successfully communicate and navigate surrounding us diversity. Finally, this is my strong belief that successful communication without cultural knowledge is simply not possible.
What do you think?
The article is published as part of my participation in Young SIETAR Mentoring Program.
Kristina Ganchenko |firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Young Sietarians,
On behalf of Young SIETAR Communication Team I am thrilled to announce a new feature on our website: an intercultural blog.
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For me this will be a wonderful opportunity to share my personal cross-cultural stories of living, studying and working in three different cultures - Russia, India and the UK. In addition, I would love to reflect upon my learning as a Young SIETAR member, my aspirations and the journey towards becoming an intercultural professional.
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