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03 April 2014

In business communication, culture is at least as important as language

Tsar Nicholas II (left): he did it his way
(and look what happened!)
Readers who think that the only obstacle to communication with foreigners is their lack of ability to speak another language should reflect on the interesting series of national clichés presented in a book by Richard Lewis and entitled, When Cultures Collide. 
     It is a study of the  negotiating styles of businessmen from 25 countries all around the world. You can read a summary of it, with some interesting diagrams to illustrate Mr Lewis’s conclusions at this link.
     It goes to show just how important language etiquette is (hence this blog)—but that is not my main point here. Rather, I am intrigued by the fact that there is no description of Russian negotiating methods (or Irish, for that matter, but perhaps we already know how to behave in pubs). So how would one fairly characterize them?
     There are some modern clichés, usually involving gangsters and/or variants on the theme of Mr Putin’s approach to Western leaders like George W. Bush when he once (with some justification in Dubya’s case) said it was like dealing with “mad people wielding razor blades”. Another cliché which is becoming equally dated is that of the Russian oligarch whose approach to a deal echoes that of Stalin, who simply counted the tanks. “How many divisions has the Pope?” the Great Leader and Teacher famously said when asked in 1935 whether it might not be a good idea to encourage toleration of Catholics.
     But it is not my sense that either of these represent mainstream practice in Russia, either today or yesterday. Some Russians undoubtedly admire brutality in others but they are rarely brutal themselves, unless they feel they have an overwhelming numerical and material advantage, as oligarchs or OMON do in Moscow, or the army did in Chechnya or Afghanistan. It is more usual to encounter a negotiating style which some people would call foxy, “oriental” or “хитрый”, and other a “subtle” or “perfidious Albion” approach.
     In that respect, I think the Anglophile Tsar, Nicholas II, gave us a more authentic example of the natural Russian method when his tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, recorded him in 1899 as saying, “Why are you arguing? I always agree with everyone and then do things in my way.”


1 comment:

  1. There is an interesting book on this subject by Lynn Visson "Where Russians Go Wrong in Spoken English". As for the Russian negotiating styles here some useful tips form our Dutch partners:
    Doing Business with the Russians
    Tip 1 With the country in a state of total flux, Russian attitudes to business can vary widely from sector to sector
    Tip 2 Law-breaking and rule avoidance have been promoted to an art-form
    Tip 3 The strength of the relationships upon which the business is based are key.
    Tip 4 Contracts are only as valid as a combination of your ability to enforce the law and the importance placed upon the relationship. Trying to enforce an unpopular clause in a contract could prove virtually impossible.
    Tip 5 Russian companies are often driven and directed by one strong, central character. Without the approval of this individual, very few decisions will be taken and any that are would probably prove invalid.
    Tip 6 Go straight to the top if possible.
    Tip 7 Companies tend to take a short-term view of any given business opportunity.
    Tip 8 Managers are expected to manage and this means giving precise and detailed instructions to subordinates. Inclusive, 'caring' management styles might be viewed as weak.
    Tip 9 Meetings tend to be used to disseminate information or to give direct instruction
    Tip 10 Smaller, more informal meetings often occur behind closed doors where senior management might canvas opinion or seek other opinions.

    Doing Business with the Dutch
    Tip 1 The Dutch appreciate plain speaking above all else.
    Tip 2 Everybody has a point to make and deserves to be heard.
    Tip 3 The manager is not necessarily the boss, but the first amongst equals.
    Tip 4 Despite their reputation for liberalism, the Netherlands is a conservative society and change is only accepted and embraced after much deliberation.
    Tip 5 The Dutch have a long tradition of internationalism. Culturally sensitive.
    Tip 6 Decisions are reached through a lengthy process of debate and consensus building buy-in.
    Tip 7 Historical events (floods, invasions etc.) have made the Dutch cautious and deeply thoughtful in their approach to issues.
    Tip 8 It is important to be seen as unpretentious in your dealings with other people. Eccentric behaviour is seen as suspect. (To act normal is crazy enough!)
    Tip 9 Humour is used and appreciated but not in very tense business situations where it could be seen as frivolous.
    Tip 10 There is a relatively strong separation made between work and private. Colleagues tend not to socialise very much immediately after work.