Cross Cultural Perspectives
Assignment in Cross Cultural Perspectives
As a result of possessing two very different cultural backgrounds (German, Uruguayan) we have chosen to select the most crucial points of cultural clashes between European and South American cultures and analyze both, the practical and theoretical issues which are involved. Due to the strict word limit, just three concepts are discussed in detail.
- The concept of Power Distance
- The concept of cultural complexity
- And as a cultural characteristic the issue of time
The Kolbenschmidt AG, a German supplier for the automotive industry owns a subsidiary in Uruguay named Santa Rosa Auto Motores. Mr. Hedden, the General Manager from Kolbenschmidt is not satisfied with the recent sales figures from Santa Rosa in Uruguay. He decides to send Dr. Löser, a very experienced and trusted sales manager with excellent Spanish skills to Uruguay, in order to replace the current sales manager. Seeing it as a challenge, Dr. Löser accepts the job despite the fact of having no previous experience in the South American market. Mr. Hernandez, Santa Rosa’s local general manager agrees to Mr. Hedden’s plan after a fierce discussion regarding the introduction of a foreign manager in the completely Uruguayan staffed company.
At his first day in office he finds Mr. Hernandez absent due to heavy bronchitis and therefore introduces himself directly to his 10 subordinates. He is surprised that all employees introduce themselves with their first name. Due to his superior rank he decides, as usual in Germany to stick to his last name and title. He realizes that the atmosphere is tense but he is sure that this will improve during the first couple of weeks.
He decides to ask the key account salesman Cesar Rodriguez to come in his office to discuss market trends and sales forecasts but finds him on the phone.
Dr. Löser: "Cesar, please come and see me in my office and bring the newest sales forecast!"
Cesar: "I am with you in a minute Dr. Löser. I am just finishing this call with my dad."
One quarter of an hour later Dr. Löser gets impatient and looks for Cesar, who is still speaking to his dad. He signals him by waving his index finger to come to his office. Fifteen minutes later Cesar appears in Dr. Löser office.
Cesar: "Sorry for the delay, but my dad rang about the marriage of my sister in a month time. Do you have a sister yourself?"
Dr. Löser needs a second to swallow down his anger. Could the marriage of Cesar’s sister not wait until work was over and why is he asking about his sister? Is he trying to distract him from the misbehavior? Dr. Löser decides to forget about the misconduct and goes straight to business ignoring the personal question about his sister.
Dr. Löser: "Please have a seat. So Cesar, what can you tell me about the newest market trends?"
Cesar feels offended due to Dr. Löser’s the behavior of. Why didn’t he reply to his question and why does he put business over getting to know each other first. Influenced by Dr. Löser’s cold behavior Cesar replies only when being asked, with short answers and is glad when getting dismissed soon after. Dr. Löser senses that something went wrong this day, but has no idea what that could be.
On his second day Dr. Löser gets a message from Mr. Hernandez’s secretary saying that the general manager would like to call in a meeting for introducing Dr. Löser to the top management at 11:00 am. Dr. Löser prepares for the meeting, arrives at the conference room at 10:45 am and finds himself all alone. The first participants arrive at five past eleven, Mr. Hernandez and the production manager at 11:15 am. Dr. Löser notices that the conversations stops, as soon as Mr. Hernandez enters the room.
Mr. Hernandez: "Good morning gentlemen, please have a seat."
The managers, quietly and quickly, sit down. Mr. Hernandez having a privileged armchair at the head of the table, lights up a cigar before starting to speak. He introduces Dr. Löser to the other managers and vice versa, explains the situation of the company and its future prospect. Before the meeting is over Mr. Hernandez gives Dr. Löser his first task.
Mr. Hernandez: "Dr. Löser, please prepare a detailed report on our clientele including the sales volume and future outlook for the next management meeting."
Dr. Löser: "Mr. Hernandez, in my opinion it would be better if I would first focus on the key customers and ....."
Before Dr. Löser could finish his sentence, Mr. Hernandez wiped away his argument with an energetic gesture of his arm. Dr. Löser realizes that it is better not to question Mr. Hernandez orders and do as he is told.
After the management meeting Dr. Löser gets back to his department and calls for a meeting for late afternoon at 4 pm in order to discuss the latest sales figures and key customers. Due to his believe, that a participating management style stimulates results and boosts efficiency he makes a proposal to his team.
Dr. Löser: "..... in order to best utilize the knowledge in our department, it is very important that you suggest improvements. When you feel that a procedure or management approach is inefficient or should be changed, please do not hesitate to come to me and we will make the appropriate adjustments."
Dr. Löser expects at least approval from his subordinates but they seem to be distant or confused. The meeting progresses very slowly and the employees seem to be very uncooperative.
The next day Dr. Löser and Cesar plan to meet a key customer in a café not far away from the office. The appointment was scheduled for 01:00 pm, but Cesar doesn’t leave before 1:30 pm saying, that Mr. Murillo, the business partner will not be there earlier anyway. When they arrive at the café at 1:45 pm Mr. Murillo has indeed not arrived yet. Cesar explains that this is something very typical for Uruguay and has nothing to do with a lack of interest. At 2:00 pm Mr. Murillo finally shows up and gets greeted by Cesar with a long hug like they were old friends. Cesar introduces him to Dr. Löser and they sit down. Dr. Löser can’t wait to speak about the expected order but Mr. Murillo seems to be more interested in the reasons for Dr. Löser being transferred to Uruguay than in business. When after 45 minutes they haven’t even mentioned the deal, Dr. Löser gets impatient. But when asking Mr. Murillo directly about the deal, he gets a very unsatisfying answer.
Mr. Murillo: "Everything at its time, Dr. Löser!"
Again Dr. Löser is not sure what to think.
1. How does the model of power distance explain some of the differences of the German and Uruguayan culture and how could many of the problems Dr. Löser had with his superior and his subordinates have been avoided?
2. The cultures of Uruguay and Germany have very different values and ways of communication. They are typical examples for High- (Uruguay) and Low- (Germany) context cultures as introduced by Hall in 1976 as the model of cultural complexity. Describe this model by evaluating appropriate parts of the case study.
3. How different is the perception of time in the Uruguayan and German culture, and what problems can arise from that? How can this different concept of time be explained?
Answer to the questions
Power distance is the difference in the amount of power possessed by individuals at different levels of a hierarchy. The power distance index defines certain rules and behavior which are typical for a culture throughout its institutions and groups. It not only influences nonverbal communication and sets communication obstacles amongst people within a society, but also influences the way structures and hierarchies in a society are perceived and how people see themselves and their role within a society.
The power distance index gives information about the dependence relationship within a society. In societies with a high power distance decisions are made top to bottom, with little or no room for discussion, subordinates expect the superior to give clear defined aims about their tasks and responsibilities. People in high power distance societies are more respectful towards their superiors and status symbols are widely accepted to demonstrate authority .
On the other hand in societies which developed a low power distance it is common that superiors consult subordinates before important decisions are made; subordinates even expect to be consulted in important decisions. Subordinates are not afraid to approach, ask or even disagree openly with their superiors, as their emotional distance is also relatively small and superior and subordinates are considered basically as equals . Careers are basically open to all members of society regardless of there status, family or wealth.
Hofstede showed that Uruguay is a country with a high power distance whereas Germany is a country with a low-medium power distance.
When Dr. Löser asks his subordinates for participating in the management process, he does not realize that this approach wont work in a high power distance society, because subordinates are not used to being involved in the decision-making process and therefore can not be of any assistance to him. His request will leave his team with the impression that he is not capable of making the correct decisions himself. It could possibly be seen as a sign of weakness.
Dr. Löser coming from a low power distance culture where superiors and subordinates are considered basically equal is surprised by the authority Mr. Hernandez posses and demonstrates through his behavior. When Dr. Löser suggests to Mr. Hernandez to set a different focus in the report, it is perceived by Mr. Hernandez as an open opposition. This is because Mr. Hernandez sees himself as an autocratic superior, whose orders are not questionable. On the other hand Dr. Löser comes from a low power distance culture, where it is normal to give a feedback to orders, in case the subordinates think that would have a positive effect.
Many of the problems Dr. Löser met could have been avoided by measures of pre-departure preparations in form of workshops or intercultural trainings where Dr. Löser could have learned about the Uruguayan culture and especially the differences in power distance.
Another approach would have been to first let him work as a consultant with increasing responsibilities and tasks in the company side by side with the local sales manager.
Every culture develops a different pattern of communication and setting values due to a wide range of historical events and trends. Some cultures prefer a straight forward, explicit approach to communicate, for others it is important to interpret the surrounding situation in order to understand the meaning of the message. These inherited ways of using the contextual information is called ‘cultural complexity’. Countries can be divided into countries of low or high cultural complexity, according to the amount of contextual information needed to correctly interpret communication.
Countries with a low level of context like Germany normally have as a common attribute, that they pursue a very direct, unambiguous approach to communicate and to solve problems. They work on topics with a linear, sequential, method and therefore give a greater value to effectiveness. These countries also emphasize detail orientated and precise work while following a strict timetable. Low-context countries like Uruguay tend to transmit much information by body language or the chosen surroundings and different ways of communication. That can create a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust for people of other countries, especially low-context countries. High-context cultures take a more active approach of communication by trying to interpret unspoken signs, clues and unarticulated moods and expect the same from the other party.
When being called in Dr. Löser’s office while speaking to his dad, Cesar says, that he would be there in one minute. Somebody with an explicit communication approach like Dr. Löser would interpret this as ‘in one minute’ or at least ‘within the next few minutes’. But somebody with the implicit background of a high context-culture like Cesar, where relationships to family members are highly valued would imply that the call could take longer. For Cesar that is something completely normal, but the German view of Dr. Löser interprets it in a negative way.
Besides the different ways of communication, there are other typical differences of high- and low-context cultures. The role of the family and family hierarchy are an example of much greater importance to high-context cultures than they are to low-context cultures. They appreciate some private affairs more than business, without that meaning they are not dedicated to their work. In low-context cultures this is regarded to be the opposite.
These different behaviors can be seen clearly, when Cesar sets a higher priority to speaking to his dad about the wedding of his sister, than immediately responding to his new superior. It is perfectly normal for him, due to his cultural background, but Dr. Löser, coined in the German low-context way, interprets that as disrespectful behavior.
Another very important aspect of cultural complexity is the role of trust in interpersonal business relationships and how to settle agreements. There are cultures, which put more trust in the other side than others. In countries like Uruguay and Argentina the trust is very low and therefore needs to be established by a series of social events, where business partners get to know each other. Only after this relationship of trust is formed, business can be done successfully.
Low-context countries do not value interpersonal business relationship much and they tend to be shallow. They can easily be formed and dissolved. However high-context countries tend to value the business relationship to a much higher extend. It is more difficult to form a relationship but therefore they last much longer.3
Cesar tries to build up a relationship by asking about Dr. Löser’s family, which is a perfectly normal behavior in high-context cultures. However in Germany questions of private nature are not usual in business. Therefore Dr. Löser thinks Cesar’s attempt to build up a relationship is an attempt to distract Dr. Löser from the rude behavior. Dr. Löser does not understand the high-context culture principle: trust first and then business and therefore reacts completely wrong.
It is typical for cultures with a high power distance to have a comparatively low degree of interpersonal trust like Uruguay or Peru, while countries like Germany or the USA with a low power distance have a high level of trust.