Anyone who has ever worked on a global IT team has a culture-clash story to tell. For Rick Davidson, CIO at Manpower, it was the time he and a male co-worker were waiting for an elevator in Japan, along with two Japanese female colleagues. When the elevator arrived, the men looked at the women as if to signal for them to enter, while the women -- following their own culturally embedded rules of hierarchy that defer to men, especially male guests -- simply looked back at the men. "The doors opened and closed, and no one got in the elevator," Davidson says. "When we realized what happened, we agreed to a compromise -- they would enter first on the way up, and we would enter first on the way down."
And Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at a global financial services firm in Stamford, will never forget the time he started a meeting with his company's new Swiss acquisition by professing his two-year vision for the corporate IT infrastructure. When it was the Swiss staffers' turn, they not only presented their own technology plan, but they also backed it up with slides and architectural diagrams. "They probably already had the impression that Americans were an arrogant lot that would try to come in and steamroll them, and I probably met that expectation," he says.
Then there's the Indian firm that recently sent a greeting card to co-workers worldwide with the image of a swastika, an ancient and sacred symbol in that country. "Many people went ballistic," says Gopal Kapur, founder and president of the Center for Project Management in California. In fact, it took five managers hours of telephone conversations and many e-mails to calm the waters. The work of 14 international team members came to a halt for more than 11 days, delaying the project and costing thousands of dollars.
From the humorous to the offensive, from startling to subtle, there are an infinite number of misunderstandings that can arise when people from different cultures merge on a project team. And while some of these misunderstandings are obvious and surface quickly so they can be resolved on the spot, others are more difficult to detect, resulting in long-term trouble, like endemic mistrust among team members.
"You need to get beyond the superficial layer of what we think we know," says Lu Ellen Schafer, founder of Global Savvy, an international training and consulting firm in California. "It's important to understand what's underneath the surface -- why your e-mails aren't being answered, why people are telling us 'yes' when they mean 'no,' why there's silence on the phone during a teleconference."
Although the gaps can't be avoided completely, it's crucial to raise awareness of the cultural divide to build at least part of the bridge before you try to cross it.
Separated by Language
Because English is the international language of business, many misunderstandings are bred by the use of idioms, acronyms, slang and other sayings that are culturally specific. "You can imagine sitting in a meeting, and someone says, 'Give me a heads up when issues arise,'" Schafer says. "Everybody says, 'OK,' but when you ask them if they know what 'heads up' is, they say no."
While it's difficult to eliminate slang, companies should train global staffers to speak a "neutralized, denuded and precise English," suggests Erran Carmel, associate professor and chairman of the IT department at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington. So instead of "Let's wrap up the project by June," say, "Let's complete the project by June," he suggests.
There are also more formal approaches. At Sunterra Corp., a resort company in Las Vegas, Norbert Kubilus develops a glossary for multinational projects containing industry-specific language that differs from country to country. Kapur suggests employing a documentation manager to search all documents for local nomenclature.
"IT terminology is relatively universal; however, this is not true for business terminology," Davidson says. For instance, in some countries, the word deployment is used to describe the user testing stage, not general release. To overcome that, Manpower has created an IT governance system dubbed "The Manpower Way." It describes the processes, methods and tools used to manage projects, people, assets, investments and budgets.
But sometimes it's nearly impossible to make an interpretation without being intimately familiar with the culture. Danback only recently realized that the British "cheers" means more than goodbye; it also indicates that the speaker feels the conversation went well.
And in India, when you ask when something is going to be finished, don't hold your breath when you hear "10 to 15 minutes," as Avi Huber, an Israeli software engineer who has worked in the U.S. for eight years, discovered. "It just means, 'We're working on it, and we think we have a solution,'" he says.
Israelis and Americans can have their own miscommunications. When a colleague of Huber's was called into his manager's office because of a big problem, the colleague responded with, "No problem!" Although it sounds blithe, the term is actually a direct translation from Hebrew that means, "I'll do whatever needs to be done," Huber says.
Glitches can even occur among speakers whose first language is English. "If a British person says, 'That's interesting,' it can actually mean he thinks your idea should be trashed," explains Jay Crotts, CIO at Shell Lubricants/B2B in London, part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Americans are similarly guilty of not saying quite what they mean. For instance, two words in U.S. business-speak -- "issue" and "challenge" -- are actually code words for "problem" or "difficulty," but their loaded meaning would be lost on a nonnative speaker of English, Carmel says.
Eastern cultures can be even less direct, particularly when it comes to saying no. In Japan, the most negative response you would hear would be something like, "That would be difficult," says Mike Rosen, practice director at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "We might interpret that as, 'Buck up and do it,'" he says. Similarly, in China, "We'll consider that" is a polite way of saying, "We'll allow you your opinion," Kubilus says.