There are 2,000 years of culture riding against the digital revolution.
What you need to keep in mind as you conduct your business abroad.
The world, we're
told, is about to become one big, digitally linked space. With everyone
connected to the World Wide Web, differences in culture, language, custom,
and time zones will no longer keep us apart. Or will they?
Digital culture is taking root at different rates all over the world.
For example, in southern Europe digital automation is prevalent in certain
sectors--big time. With the globalization of financial markets, banking
in these Mediterranean countries is state of the art, attuned to Wall
Street and the world via the Internet. Banks are aggressively online.
Banking transactions are now handled with smart cards (France's Roland
Moreno invented smart cards' built-in microprocessor). Accounting standards
However, when it comes to tapping into commercial markets on the Web,
establishing business Web sites, or even owning a computer with Internet
access at home, it's quite a different story in the sunny countries along
According to a study published in 2000 by Accenture (formerly Andersen
Consulting), Finland has almost 90 Web sites per 1,000 inhabitants, Norway
65, and Sweden over 40 (compared with 60 per 1,000 inhabitants in the
U.S.), France has 8, and Spain and Italy 5. The study found that the number
of household computers in the U.K. and Scandinavia, as compared with France,
Italy, and Spain, is roughly 2 to 1 (3 to 1 for the U.S., and 1.5 to 1
Why are so few French, Italians, and Spaniards online? The answer may
lie in 2,000 years of culture.
Edward T. Hall,
an American social anthropologist and author of The Silent Language
(Doubleday, 1959), The Hidden Dimension (Doubleday, 1966), and
Beyond Culture (Anchor Press, 1976), made a communications leap
of Einsteinian proportions when he perceived, from his studies of a number
of cultures, two fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world.
Hall claimed that cultures are either "high context" or "low context,"
and have widely variant perceptions of time. Whether a culture is "high"
or "low" context can go a long way to determining how digitally attuned
it will be--or how fast, it might embrace the wired world.
Low-context cultures--most of the Germanic and English-speaking cultures,
which are mostly Northern and Protestant in background--are explicit:
direct, linear, verbal. Channels of communication are clear. Working teams
share information, cooperate among themselves, and support one another.
Information and goods are easy to obtain. If you see something advertised
in a catalogue in the U.S., you phone the number indicated. Someone will
answer. After your order and credit-card number are taken, the transaction
has ended. End of contact. The context--the who and why, of a business
transaction--doesn't matter. What does matter is getting a job done, going
forward, and making money, not trying to familiarize yourself with people
before you trade or communicate extensively with them. Not surprisingly,
the cultures that embrace linear transactions, the U.S. being the most
notable among them, are the ones rapidly embracing the wired world, with
its anonymity and speed of communication.
Low-context cultures can generally be classified as achievement cultures,
and they're always, as Hall termed them, "monochronic," viewing time as
sequential and highly scheduled. To them, time is an absolute. But, Hall
observed, time is not a social absolute; like space, it is culturally
variable and programmed. Hall found that countries having the same sense
of "when" also share various other perceptions and behavior codes. They
have similar mechanisms--management principles, procedures, habits of
work, agendas, and attitudes toward a task to be accomplished. Monochronics
build in mechanisms to feel in control; one of them is adhering to the
task, another is improving machines.
While Americans, Canadians, Britons, Germans, and Swedes grow up assuming
that their perception of "on time" and "lateness" is universally valid
and as incontestable as the movement of the planets, the fact is that
only the northern, industrialized, business-oriented countries have similar
definitions. (Japan has rigorously adopted this time sense, although it
is in most other ways high context.) To a citizen of one of these countries,
"late" for a business appointment means not "on the dot" of the scheduled
time and may affect the outcome of the meeting. There are only slight
variations in the toll for each accumulated minute of lateness.
For these nations, time is sequential and rigorously scheduled along an
endless ribbon of appointments and obligations. People live in a kind
of temporal straitjacket, bullied by a schedule they can change only at
the cost of their credibility, and by their religion of punctuality that
equates lateness with original sin or lunacy. Time is quantified ("wasted,"
"saved," "killed"). The appointment and the project often have priority
over everything, including urgent demands on a person's time by family
In contrast, for the overwhelming majority of humanity, being alive doesn't
necessarily mean being "on time." Numerous cultures have a more indulgent
or elastic view of "lateness," if indeed they have a word for it, at all.
Hall called these cultures--Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean,
Slavic, Central European, Latin American--polychronic. The world of the
polychronics is abuzz with people. Projects get completed because of the
vast network of people. And people come first. Time is more like a balloon
that swells and deflates according to what's going on, who's present.
The more people around all the time and the more things happening at once
the better. Appointments are for giving a general idea--they're easily
postponed or canceled, with no ill effect.
High-context cultures are affiliation cultures. Much of the interaction
of high-context people is implicit: coded, circular, indirect. The message
is in the body language, the setting, the relationship between the people
involved. They have their own private networks for information, which
they keep to themselves, and they are constantly updating these so they
won't need much background information. They prefer not to do business
on the phone, except with people they know.
The relationships of high-context people, once established, are for keeps.
They don't need contracts, except to set a general direction, which will
evolve. And-bottom line--their relationships, honor, and face are more
important than business. In many of these cultures, power may also come
before business. Often a businessperson in a high-context culture has
chosen to lose a deal rather than a portion of his or her power.
High-context cultures don't view time as being segmented. People in those
countries will be on time if some greater priority doesn't come up in
the meantime. Their schedules are flexible. But they keep time according
to their own system, and "on time" for them might be a half-hour, an hour,
a week, or a month "late" for you, depending on the culture.
Adapted from an article originally published in the New England Financial
Journal. Illustration copyright © Brian Ajhar.