The Malta Independent 12 July 2020, Sunday

TradeMalta’s International Speaker on Cross-cultural Communication for Business

Tuesday, 14 January 2020, 14:04 Last update: about 7 months ago

Prof. Fons Trompenaars was in Malta late last year to address the audience at the Malta International Business Awards organised by TradeMalta, the public-private partnership that assists Maltese enterprises succeed in international markets. While the Professor was in Malta, Trade Malta’s Chief Officer, Dr Joe Schembri, had the following conversation with him on the role of cultural understanding in international business.

Prof. Fons Trompenaars
Prof. Fons Trompenaars

Why is it important for leaders and employees to understand and manage cultures when engaging in any form of international business?

I think any process where human beings are involved has a cultural context and international business - although we very often approach it with very technical and hard sides like finance, legal, etc. - is still done in the context of culture. So you can sign a contract which objectively is a contract, but it is all about the meaning you give to the contract. For example, where Americans are concerned, if you sign a contract they will say I can trust this person because he signed a contract, whereas in China they say the opposite: it's the same contract but you cannot trust the other party because they asked to sign a contract. These are small examples to show that, in any human interaction - of which international business is a beautiful and even more obvious case - culture plays a role and we need to be aware of it and manage it.



Should one talk of cultural differences with people who are typically coming from a different culture, and therefore be explicit about it or is it something that we need to appreciate and respect without explicitly making reference to it?   

I think both could be the case. Let me explain, because there is one standard rule which is that if you respect cultural differences sometimes you do so by being implicit, i.e. not making it too obvious, and sometimes it is very nice if, for example, you do not understand someone's behaviour and raise the issue in a respectful manner because you genuinely want to engage.

Of course, deciding whether to be implicit or explicit depends very much on the situation, the context and the timing. Sometimes it is very helpful to make culture explicit and talk about it, for example saying: "Hey, I've seen this behaviour: can you please tell me where it is coming from because it's very interesting" rather than something like: "Hey, where is this stupid behaviour coming from?" 

Once you have raised an issue, you should not be judgmental. Sometimes you should just observe some form of behaviour and decide not to talk about it in the hope that, later, you will understand it better. It is like losing face: it is very difficult to make an explicit comment about something because it is very subtle.  So I would say follow your instincts and realise that, sometimes, it would be good to make it explicit and at other times it would be better not to talk about it and start to learn. Obviously, it depends on the extent to which such culturally grounded behaviour affects your ability to communicate and function with the other person or persons. If you are about to start a three-day workshop with other people, it is better to clarify the form of communication early on, because otherwise the outcome will be affected. But if, on the other hand, the behaviour is just a habit you notice during lunch, perhaps it can wait and you should not be explicit about it.


Today, a lot of people who are either involved with or actually running companies - including in Malta - need to work with others who are co-workers or bosses or subordinates from different cultures.  Is it realistic to expect a Chief Executive Officer to create a cultural balance between people who are from different parts of the world or should the corporate culture be supreme in a way that tends to suppress the different cultures?

There are some words I would like to change - such as 'balance' - because very often this looks like a compromise.  Then there are situations where it is very wise for an organisation to adapt to certain cultures - such as if you are a company in Malta doing a lot of business with the Italians or the French or even the Dutch, then it is very good to say: "Hey, let's give up a bit of our culture, adapt to the important client or supplier and go for it." But increasingly we find that we get multicultural environments.  In other words, there are more cultures involved: your boss is Chinese, your colleague is Turkish and you are Maltese and then you have a supplier who is Swedish, so what we are saying is that in multicultural environments do not start with cultures - start with the business challenge.

For example, what challenge do you have in getting a contract? Essentially, it is seeing culture as important on a personal level and for the health of the enterprise community, but subservient to the task at hand.

If that is the case, start with the business issue and if this helps, link it to certain cultures but avoid the extreme of cultures in order not to insult them. But in the world in which we are living, just adapting to one culture will, in many situations, not be good enough anymore because we are increasingly going into a multicultural environment.


Now that you have a degree of appreciation of Malta and an idea of where we stand on a cultural level, do you feel there is anything specific to Maltese culture that those involved in international business need to be aware of when they are interacting with others?

Yes, first of all your language is a wonderful metaphor of the mix of the cultures that are at your roots. You have the Arabic sound and the European letters and there is also a bit of an Italian touch in the architecture so you are, first of all, rooted in a variety of cultures, which is usually an advantage.  By the way, there is another thing that is remarkable, and that is the fact that Malta is very small, and often the beauty of small cultures is that they are very sensitive to the outside world when it comes to doing business. This is like us in the Netherlands. As Dutch, we have to try to understand everyone because nobody understands our language - like yours, by the way - and nobody does anything with Dutch or Maltese culture per se.

The third element is that you are an island culture and that is interesting because it presents certain dilemmas. What we see of islanders such as the British and the Japanese is that they very often create a logic that is only understood on their island and not outside it - which is both a strength and a weakness.  And my advice would be to be authentic, be yourselves, never give up your own identity but try to integrate your identity with its opposite. Obviously, the opposite could be English, it could be Dutch but never give up your beauty - as I can see here - of your own identity but enrich your culture by the opposite.  That would be my advice.



A brief Biography of Prof Trompenaars

Dr Fons Trompenaars is a Dutch organisational theorist and author and a global authority on cross-cultural communication. He is the author of the international best-seller Riding the Waves of Culture, which has been translated into many languages. He was recognised as one of the most influential management thinkers alive by 'The Thinkers 50' and has acted as a strategy consultant to some of the world's top corporations such as Shell, BP, the BBC and Nissan.




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