When the world was still normal, a business partner from Latvia visited me in Denver for some reconnaissance of the vast and alluring U.S. market that lately has been in sights of nearly every respectable Latvian company.
Right now I will not dwell on his business plans because they are not pertinent to this story. But the matters I will offer an insight into here have nevertheless only gained in relevance with all travels put on hold for now.
One of the lasting educational benefits of this visit by my colleague was the recommendation of a book – The Culture Map, subtitled “Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures”. An analogy I borrowed from this book has been a huge hit with various audiences – when speaking about the difference between Latvians and Americans, I explain that Americans are Peach People but Latvians are definitely Coconut People.
It means that, when you first meet with people from the American culture, they will be friendly, smiling, open and talkative. All conversations will inevitably begin with small talk.
If given the opportunity, Americans will gladly speak of their family, work, hobbies, recent trips and other important things in their life.To people from the Latvian culture they would appear as sweet and soft as ripe peaches. After an afternoon spent in jolly camaraderie, a Latvian may think that he has now acquired a new friend for life – and would feel disappointed and hurt when, after a while, his newfound buddy would not even remember him, let alone consider a close friend. Beneath that all soft and pulpy surface, there’s a hard core that you will not be able to penetrate so easily.
Meanwhile Latvians and people from other Eastern European cultures are more reserved and distrustful in communication with strangers.
”Don’t you talk to strangers, sweetie”, our moms admonish their offsprings. One would only start gradually trusting a stranger after knowing him or her a longer time, maybe after going through thick and thin together. If the stranger is sweet and talkative, most probably he wants something from you, therefore it is better to stay away from such a chatterbox – this is what taciturn Latvians think.
On the other hand, Americans are baffled by the cheerless Latvians and their seeming rudeness because, to Americans, a person sharing a bit of information about oneself is only being polite and there are no strings attached to this kind of small talk.
Ideas about what’s normal and appropriate may vary greatly from country to country. For the last year, I have been quite regularly cycling to my office in Denver. Having read the book, I started pondering what my American co-workers might think of this.
In Stockholm, and by now in Riga as well, it is perfectly normal for the boss to ride a bicycle to work and to have lunch together with his subordinates. Or at least it was normal before the outbreak of the pandemic – but, hopefully soon life will get back on track.
Whereas in China employees would feel ashamed of a boss like this and find it uncomfortable to lunch with him. Over there, the boss is a superior and supposed to look and act the part, otherwise he may easily lose his authority along with the ability to achieve the desired results.
For Americans, it is normal for the boss to be ”equal” with his subordinates, namely, it is OK to keep the relationship informal and dress casually, yet people would expect the boss to make the decisions, and a regular American boss would do it without much asking for others’ opinion. He also will not hesitate to alter his decisions the following day because, after all, there may have been some new developments, right?
In Germany, the boss will dress better than his subordinates and they will treat him more respectfully but the decisions will be debated more widely and adopted in a more collegial manner. Contrary to a decision made by Americans, a German decision should be spelled with the capital ”D”. They will take more time to arrive at the decision and it will be more diligent but also more difficult to alter.
The American boss will never give a direct negative feedback to his employees. Even if he wants to shout, he will smile instead and say that you did well this and that – but maybe you could improve this particular aspect of your worka a little. The unsuspecting Latvian would think he had just received lots of praise and will smile and feel appreciated. And he will be flabbergasted when, after a couple of such conversations, he will not get the expected pay rise but his walking papers.
Less than a year ago an acquaintance from among the Latvians bent to conquer the U.S. market asked me for an advice – what is the right way to lead American colleagues? They had hired an industry veteran, who in a couple of months had had enough of the “rude” Latvian-style communication and fled without so much as a backward glance. “What went wrong? We paid him the salary that was promised and treated him exactly the same way we treat our Latvian staff,” the CEO wondered.
However, from what I have observed, you get better results when a company entering a foreign market deploys one of their own people to serve as a bridge and smooth out the cross-cultural differences. An “exported” employee who is aware of “how we get things done” at the parent company will be more loyal and eager than a local without any clue about the distant country and culture represented by his employer.
Another tip to the teams comprising people from different countries and with different ethnic origins would be to make time regularly enough for discussing cultural differences – what you find bothering, surprising or offensive.
You must speak about cultural differences within the group and find an acceptable way to communicate, criticize and make decisions. All people are very much the same at heart, the only difference is how they proceed to get the result.