Clash of German and Greek cultures

The perception of the population of Greece that it is now locked into an unholy relationship with Germany is not one it enjoys for obvious reasons. But apart from the financial aspect of the arrangement there are also business cultural differences that make for an unhappy alliance.

Greece is a population of patriots whose dedicated loyalty to the country is almost matched by its dislike of its public administration, which it often treats with contempt. The public sector is considered to be wasteful, inefficient, often corrupt and overfunded. An attitude that is not assisted by government agencies dominating the economy.

Given that Greek people do not like their own government interfering in their lives, they were never likely to warm to the idea of German politicians seemingly telling them what to do. This is not helped by the way the two countries like to run things.

The business management style of Greece is based on a hierarchy in which senior managers issue verbal instruction. Misunderstandings are not uncommon within this process. Subordinates are usually not expected to improvise, and the top down structure does not encourage discussion or collective problem solving.

In Germany everyone at all levels within companies are aware of exactly what is expected of them due to the formal written frameworks that are adhered to. There is no margin for misunderstanding.

There are defined hierarchies within German business, but once tasks have been allocated individuals or departments are left to fulfil their roles. This is because the success of the German economy is to a large extent based on corporate and individual expertise in specialised areas. Individuals are expected to know their job and get on with them, which they do.

Perhaps the most telling difference between Greek and German business culture is in meetings. In Greece they are a forum for free expression, and frequently discussion strays away from the agenda with more than one person at a time trying to hold the floor. Emotion can run high when making a point. Making minutes of meetings is optional.

Outsiders sometimes consider Germans to make decisions ahead of meetings taking place. This is because they thoroughly plan and prepare figures and use them to promote the logic of their particular position. To the uninitiated this can come across as being too assumptive.

In Germany meeting are run to schedule with individuals waiting in turn to talk. Any sign of emotion is considered a point of failure.

In describing the business culture of any nation it is easy to turn generalisation into caricature, which is not only incorrect it is also unjust. But there is no question that practices and behaviour in Greece and Germany are at odds with each other. And it is also important to take into account that the situation is compounded by the fact that Germans find it difficult to understand how Greece could get itself into its current situation. Communication is not improved by the German habit of having a direct approach to communication rather than a diplomatic one.

It all adds up to a strained relationship, and one without the prospect of any happiness in the short and medium term. It is always important to try and identify some positive aspect to every scenario, but from the way in which each party is shaping up a conformational future rather than one of collaboration and understanding is most likely.

Chinese retail culture in the UK

The prevailing view is that paying for professional advice on matters of overseas culture and the use of interpreters is only necessary at the high end of business. Not so. London West End stores are increasingly employing Mandarin speakers to cater for the growing number of wealthy Chinese tourists visiting the UK.

Harrods and Selfridges has even gone one step further and installed dedicated payment terminals that will accept China Union Pay credit cards that allow payment to be taken directly from bank accounts in China. Such moves are not surprising. The average individual spend of Chinese tourists in the UK during the first quarter of the year was more than £3,500.

In the last ten years sterling has fallen hugely against the renminbi, and at the same time personal wealth has boomed in China. The result is that Chinese visitors find favourite brands such as Burberry, Hermes and Dior a bargain compared to home, even at West End prices. With the number of visitors from China growing by more than 25 percent year on year more retailers will begin to cater for the Chinese.

But Visit Britain, the body responsible for promoting tourism into the UK, does not seem to be much concerned either way. In a leaked letter from the UK Ambassador to Beijing, Sebastian Wood, to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, he complains about the poor performance of Visit Britain in China, and the visa barriers restricting tourism to the UK. Unsurprisingly the handful of Visit Britain staff in China do not have much of an impact on the Chinese population of 1,338,299,512. More importantly it is not reaching the fast growing wealthy middle class. Most Chinese visit other European destinations which benefit hugely from their spending power.

The combination of the poor performance of Visit Britain and the unreasonable visa restrictions is not only damaging the UK tourist industry, it is damaging business too. Chinese business owners and investors perceive the UK to alienate itself from China – we don’t appear to want them so guess what? They happily take their trade and money elsewhere. Which begs the question, who needs who most?

Cultural mistakes

Everybody likes to hear about amusing mistakes. In order to illustrate how things can go wrong if you are not properly prepared for new business territories the Institute collects examples. If I were to list some of the better ones purely for amusement it would be easy to accuse me of generating trivia. So, at that risk here are a few:

An American oil rig supervisor in Indonesia learned that in that country you do not order people about in a raised voice. He shouted aggressively telling an employee to take a boat to shore. For the next ten minutes or so he spent an interesting game of evasion before escaping a mob of outraged workers brandishing work tools.
At his inaugural speech before the U.N. Security Council, Indian Foreign Minister, S. M. Krishna, got well into his dialogue before realising he was reading from a paper left on the podium by his Portuguese counterpart.

A good example of symbols not meaning the same thing across the world is the instance of dockers at the African port of Maputo. They eyed the normally recognisable symbol for fragile – a broken wine glass – plastered liberally across packing cases. Presuming the containers to be full of broken glass they despatched them into the sea.

When Pepsi first entered the Taiwanese market its slogan ‘Pepsi Brings You Back to Life’ was translated as ‘Pepsi Brings your ancestors back from the dead’. Clairol introduced its curling iron, the ‘Mist Stick’, into Germany and discovered ‘mist’ in German means manure.

General Motors did not sell many Chevrolet Nova’s in South America because ‘nova’ in Spanish means ‘won’t go’. A US telephone company ran a disastrous advertising campaign in the same region based on a wife telling her husband to call a friend. The suggestion that a husband might be told what to do by his wife did not go down well is such a macho culture.

Entrepreneur hotelier Leona Helmsley, should have done her homework before she signed off a campaign comparing the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York to the Taj Mahal. The latter of course, is a mausoleum. And Kellogg’s had to rename Bran Buds Sweden when it found the name means burnt farmer.

And finally, a warning sign in English at Budapest zoo read: ‘Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.’