Virtual Roundtable | CQ: cultural intelligence

CQ & you: Accessing multicultural markets with 'cultural intelligence'

  • You’ve probably heard of IQ, or the human ‘intelligence quotient’. You might also have heard of EI or EQ (“emotional intelligence”) which measures how well we recognise emotions in ourselves and others. But have you heard of “CQ”?
  • CQ describes our ability to work with and relate to people of different cultures at home and abroad. It can make the difference between winning and losing business. Strong CQ can set you apart in a multicultural marketplace, building trust in your brand.
  • In this virtual Roundtable, Gerry Higgins joins host Trevor Fenton to discuss how developing CQ can be a competitive advantage, improving your company’s ability to communicate, negotiate, and build relationships across cultures.


+ - Roundtable details
Host: Trevor Fenton from Plain English Law.
Industry Expert: Gerry Higgins from Communicating Culture.
Moderator: Lucas Nightingale from Plain English Law.
Recording Date: 17 Mar 2022
Recording Length: 00:57:15
YouTube link:


+ - Roundtable transcript

LN: Welcome everyone to our March Plain English Roundtable. 

In this Roundtable series, we’ve been talking about issues that affect how well companies communicate with their customers and business partners. With the help of industry experts and using real case studies, we’ve been exploring these issues further, outlining strategies for improving business communications, and providing practical take-aways for companies to incorporate into their workflows right now.  

Our goal is to make this series a resource for businesses to help them connect with their target market and do business better. 

To that end, these Roundtables are being recorded and will be available on-demand on the Plain English Law YouTube channel. You can find a link to our channel on our website. 

Please be assured that these recordings will only show the faces of the panellists. The names and profile pics of attendees will be hidden. If you have any questions or privacy concerns about that, please get in touch directly. Again, our contact details can be found on the Plain English Law website. 

Our next virtual Roundtable will be in two months’ time. It is scheduled for Thursday 12 May. 

In May, we’re going to go back to basics to talk about why some businesses struggle to communicate clearly with their audience. With the help of Social Media Strategist, Peggy Harnock, and Executive Coach, Mandy Sinclair, we’ll be exploring why many business processes end up being a “complexity for complexity’s sake” exercise rather than keeping it simple and speaking plainly. We’ll talk about the common traps that businesses fall into that make connecting with customers more complicated than it needs to be, and offer strategies for uncovering the hidden biases that are putting the brakes on our ability to innovate. 

There will be an Eventbrite link on our social media pages posted early next week, so keep an eye out for that and please sign up. 

Today’s Roundtable is about CQ. Now, you've probably heard of IQ, which is a measure of human intelligence, and maybe even EQ which is all about peoples’ emotional intelligence.  

CQ stands for "cultural intelligence” and describes our ability to work with and relate to people of different cultures. How well-developed a brand’s CQ is can affect the level of trust that brand has depending on the marketplace. Simply put, cultural intelligence can make the difference between winning a contract in one country and losing it in another. 

To lead us through CQ and You, I’ll introduce our panel. 

Our usual co-host, Niamh Kelly from Tigim, is unable to join to us today but she sends her greetings from Dublin and wishes everyone a Happy St Patricks Day.  

As today’s single host, we have Trevor Fenton. Trevor is a solicitor and the founder of Plain English Law. Plain English Law is a boutique commercial law and data privacy practise, currently based in Dundee, soon to be based in Edinburgh. Welcome and congratulations Trevor! 


TF: Thanks very much.


LN: Please also welcome our industry expert guest, Gerry Higgins. Gerry, who is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, originally trained as a Mechanical Engineer and spent 35 years in the management of technical risk in the maritime industry with the Norwegian Classification Society, DNV. 

During that time, his career took him and his family to 9 different countries around the world including Asia, Africa and the Nordics. 

It was through managing business units and projects in those very different Countries that Gerry realised the impact that culture has on how companies communicate, negotiate, and build relationships with businesses from different cultures. 

Over the past 10 years, Gerry has been working with Universities, Colleges, Ship Owners and individuals to help them better understand Cross cultural working and help them develop their own cultural intelligence. It’s great to have you here, Gerry! 


GH: Thank you very much, great to be here.


LN: Fantastic. I think what we'll do is we'll start off if you don't mind with, I'll launch it with a personal story of cultural intelligence or lack of cultural intelligence. So, 10 years ago we moved to the UK from Canada, and we found ourselves in Liverpool. And we thought OK, we’re here and our nephews are the biggest, back in Canada, they are the biggest Liverpool FC fans and we can't be here and not get some swag for them.

So we found ourselves in the Liverpool One store when it was a brand new development in Liverpool, and when we were there I was just overwhelmed. I was amazed at how much stuff there was, you know, that was all branded Liverpool FC. And I found myself beside this mountain of shower accessories, these kind of spongy meshy things and use with shower gel and you get it all foamy and it's great. In Canada, we call these “shower pouffes”. Now, fresh off the boat, I didn't understand that “poof” means something else in the UK.

But anyway, there I was beside this mountain of shower accessories and I call across the store, forgetting that I'm in this bastion of male macho football culture, and I yell across the store: “Look! Shower pouffes!!” And it was one of these moments – the music stops, everyone looks at me and I'm just like ‘gulp’. It was a bit awkward.


TF: And this is the bit where I translate for the non-British audience what a ‘poof’ is in Britain. It’s a very derogatory term for a gay man, so yelling this in the middle of Liverpool Football Club store is probably not the best.


LN: I should have done my homework, which was kind of what we're talking about today. I mean what we're talking about, Gerry, is not so much these awkward moments that you can laugh about later. It's kind of more serious when this happens with businesses and these gaffes, forget the social awkwardness, can actually lead into some pretty serious business consequences.

GH: Absolutely yeah.

That was a funny story by the way Lucas, well done. Lucas was a bit sensitive about that one. He thought it might not be funny, but it was very good. I'll be using that in the future. I’m going to steal your material with pride.

But yes, you're right. The kind of, when people do things like that, as we discussed the kind of do's and don’ts of our culture. What we're going to talk about today may be one level above or below that more general sense.

Maybe I could just start off by saying, why are we spending your valuable time on this? And the reality is that everyone everywhere is communicating more and more across cultures. Companies frequently have multicultural teams and those multicultural teams within the company are talking to other multicultural teams within a company. And that company is talking to other companies with multicultural teams, etc.

There's loads of, more and more cross cultural communication happening in industry and also in our daily lives. I mean we were just saying that the last time I had cross cultural communication was about 3 minutes ago, because Trevor and Lucas are Canadian and I'm from the UK. So we're communicating cross culturally already.

So why spend time on this?

Culture has an impact on so many things: about how we feel about different things, about different situations, what we regard as being acceptable or not acceptable. If you're buying toiletries for example. Culture determines things like how do we organise or determine our time even. How do we handle tasks? What do we do in different cultures when we come up against business problems or challenges or difficult situations? How do we deal with them?

And as Lucas said, how do we communicate verbally and nonverbally. Today I'm not going to touch on nonverbal very much, but it’s absolutely another fascinating aspect of culture: how we communicate nonverbally in different cultures. But as Lucas said, maybe today the whole thing is about by knowing a bit more about the cultural preferences of different cultures, we can communicate better, and we can build trust. Trust really is the basis of so many or all of our business dealings, if you like. And so building trust is a real keystone here.

My contention would be that if we understand the cultural preferences… You'll hear people talking about cultural “differences” and cultural “challenges”, but I think cultural “preferences” is a better way of describing things because different cultures have different preferences. How they like to do things, and we'll touch on that later on. It's only a preference. It's just what you like or you don't like or the way you like to do something or the way you don't like to do something. For me, broccoli. I don't like broccoli. That's my preference. I’m not a broccoli person. My wife loves broccoli. It doesn't make either of us a good or a bad person. It's purely just a preference and that really is the same with cultures. It's just a preference of the way that we like to do things in our own cultures.


TF: And Gerry is, and also possibly a filter through which you understand. What I hear in Lucas’ story, for example, is the gap between the message you send and the message that gets received on the other side. And some of the chats we’ve have had about culture before, it seemed to me that one of the aspects that that could really help a lot of us who are trying to do business across cultural boundaries is to recognise that difference and how culture is a filter. Our own personal culture is the filter through which we receive information from other people. And maybe can actually alter the message from what was intended when it was sent to what we hear when we receive it. So, can you maybe touch on that a little bit?


GH: Yep, you're absolutely correct. There's enough communication issues in business already without needing to or, without trying to remove one more filter if we cannot filter is how culture can as you say modify the message from the sender to the receiver. Did we discuss previously an example of that?


TF: No, I was just thinking, one of the things we were talking about earlier was, business looking for opportunities elsewhere in the world, for example. If we sell down the street we, I guess we assume essentially that we know how it is that people in our immediate area, in our local culture, how they look at the world. We know how to communicate with them, and yet sometimes actually maybe we don't quite know how to communicate with them because we assume that they're operating in the same context that we are. And that's not always true. Whether they're down the road or across the globe.

I guess it's a question of, as you said, trust, right? If you're looking to build, if you are looking to establish new business relationships with people, one of the things that's going to be critical in determining whether you get that sale or that new relationship established is whether you can build trust.

And so, I was just kind of curious to see how does that… How do we account for those possible cultural differences? Or even to identify them when they aren't necessarily obvious so that we can sort through how that would affect our approach to working with different people?


GH: OK, since you mentioned trust and about how do you… We know that trust is critical, so how do we build trust? Different cultures build trust in different ways, dramatically different ways.

So, you can have cultures which are, you build trust with someone through the job you do, through the task, through the way that you do a job. So for example, a “task-based” culture would maybe be northern European, say German. That kind of culture would trust you if you do a good job, you do it consistently, you do it reliably – I’ve worked with you, you did a good job and I trust you.

That's on one end of the spectrum of culture and, on the other end, it's completely different. It can be just based on relationships, so “relationship-based” – I’ve spent time with you privately, we've had drinks, we've had dinner, I know your family, I know your family history, I know people who have worked with you and like you, therefore, I trust you.

And that's an area where you can have lots of, not misunderstandings, but you don’t get the best situation if you don't handle it properly. So what we're thinking about is, if we think about the German company going to work in a culture or to do business in a culture which is very relationship-based, say for example Vietnam. They might be tempted to focus very much on the task and just get into the job straight away without realising that in order to build the trust and the relationship we need to spend a lot more time on just building the relationship. Spending time asking questions which I think probably in America, maybe Canada, but certainly in America, are probably illegal to ask. But they will ask questions which are very personal and very in depth. But it's just a way to build that relationship, to get comfortable, to get to know you and stuff.

One piece of advice I always give to people in that type of scenario is be prepared to spend a lot more time than you expected. Set time aside to build up the relationship before you dive into the nitty gritty of the IT and the finance and the product. Because if you do, it'll just be met with a blank, a blank stare, sort of thing. I don't know if that was the thing you were thinking about Trevor?


TF: Yeah, I mean that's one good example. That's a new example, I hadn't thought about it that way. And if the funny thing is, let's say you reverse that. Let's say that the Vietnamese person is trying to build a relationship with me. I suspect I would find a lot of those questions really intrusive. If they started asking me about my family and about my personal life and trying to get to know me, I would find that really off-putting unless I understood that's what they were doing, that's how they operated.

It's an interesting problem because I don't think a lot of us realise how instinctive some of those reactions are when we respond to someone else’s style. I'm sitting there thinking: “This person is really nosey.” And actually, maybe they're just Vietnamese, right? Whereas they might be thinking: “That guy’s really cold. He's got no personality, he's got no pulse.” And it's actually well, no. I'm doing what makes sense to me.

And then compare that the third example, one of my favourites was a Polish colleague that I had in a company I used to work for. And at one point she told me privately, she said: “You know what, can we just skip the small talk? I can't stand this. I dread this about dealing with about my colleagues in Scotland.” And then there was a German colleague sitting next to her, she said: “Oh, I know what you mean. We've actually write down, before we go into a meeting, we write a little note to ourselves to remind ourselves to speak about the weather for the first five minutes.” She wasn't even kidding. She said: “Sometimes I'm even looking at my watch wondering have we done enough of this yet? Can we get into the business?” Because that's their preferences. They just want to go straight for it. And if they do that, we're kind of off-put because we’re like: “Oh wait a second, where's the banter we need? We need that first sort of five minutes of banter.” And of course we're going to banter about, what else, the weather. What else are you going to talk about?


GH: And the reason that the weather is a great topic in Britain is…? I mean we don't have tornadoes, we don't have amazing weather, but we do have a lot of weather which changes every five minutes. So, it's a great topic.

And you're exactly right Trevor. The whole thing about intercultural communication is being able to see it from the other person's perspective. And like you said, when you take the German to Vietnam, you also need to think about the Vietnam to the German. You’ve got to worry about the poor Vietnamese guys coming to Germany, walking into a meeting cold without having done the research into what's important for the Germans. And then you can just picture the scene, it all going off-track before anything has started, before anything got going.

And that's why we look at these things is because, like you were saying you would feel uneasy, you feel uncomfortable, it’s just all wrong. And it's not a great basis for building trust.


LN: Sorry to jump in, there's a comment from Richard and he says: “I think it's important to do the necessary cultural research before interacting cross-culturally.” which is pretty much what we're saying, isn't it? To kind of do some homework?


GH: And I think there's two groups of homework you can do. One is this kind of stuff which is looking at the big picture of cultures, about what are the preferences of different cultures. And I think you can dive in more specifically when you have a target. So, for example, if I'm travelling to Saudi Arabia tomorrow, I would go into very much into the nitty gritty of do's and don'ts, acceptable behaviour, what happens if I'm invited to a service or a wedding or funeral or something? You know, all that sort of stuff.

I was going to say Trevor, I'd been in Indonesia about a year or so and I started to interact with a new client, and by this time I'd figured out this whole task-versus-relationship thing. And he was a shipowner in Indonesia and I think I had, I think it was four meetings before, eventually… He kind of knew the company and he knew what we roughly did, but after four meetings he said: “So what is it you want to talk about?” Because for four meetings we just talked about our golf game, his family, my family, it's so hot here what's the weather like in Scotland. It's just that building up of the whole rapport for a relationship basis can be difficult.

We talked about culture and intercultural communication along with it. But I mean, what is a culture? I mean, what makes Canadian culture? And don't say: those French fries with the cheese and stuff on it!


TF: Ah, poutine! Well I was going to start there yes...


GH: Exactly. But it is, it is.


TF: And Hawaiian pizza, don't forget. That is a Canadian invention.


GH: So there's stuff you can say like that, that makes a culture visible and invisible. So they're visible items like food or dress, traditions, habits and stuff. And then under that invisible or things like opinions, beliefs, assumptions, all that sort of stuff.

There's loads and loads of definitions of what makes a culture. And you can say it's a complex pattern of ideas and emotions and observable behaviours and symbols that tend to be expected, reinforced, and rewarded.

Today we're talking about national cultures, but I mean you, you hear about other cultures: national, professional (lawyers versus doctors versus engineers), and organisational (if you join a law firm from another law firm, it's got a totally different vibe). And then you've got individual cultures as well, in your family, in your culture your individual culture. It doesn't matter. It's true for them all: expected, reinforced, rewarded. It's the way things are done around you.

Now I don't know if I talk to you Trevor about this one before, but there's a guy in the States who does a great experiment with an elevator.


TF: An elevator?


GH: You know, a “lift”? Ah, you've been in Scotland too long – it’s a lift!

Anyway, what he does is, if you think about going into an office block and there's an elevator and you're the first person in. So, you would walk into the elevator; which way do you face and where would you stand?


TF: They face the door and stand more or less in the middle.


GH: Or closer to the buttons, unless you've got really long arms.


TF: Yeah, fair enough.


GH: And if you're second, you would maybe occupy the other corner. If you're third, the one corner remaining. And which way would you all be facing?


TF: Toward the door, I would think.


GH: Towards the door, yeah. So this guy's experiment. What he does is he walks in, the doors open, there's four people there already, he walks in and he doesn't turn round, he just looks straight ahead. Just looks ahead. Now, if someone did that in an elevator, just off the top of your head, how would you feel?

TF: I don't think I'd like that very much.


GH: Uneasy, kind of. Ok, so he's got three levels of this experiment. That's level 1 where he walks in and just faces straight ahead. Level 2 is he walks in and then he smiles, and that really gets them going. On at least two occasions, we know a woman at the back of the elevator, she'd gone into her handbag, got the phone and called the cops and said: “We've got a crazy in the lift. We need help.”

If you think about it, and you're a lawyer Trevor so I hope you would think about it – he had not broken any laws, but he hadn't done what was expected, reinforced, and rewarded. And that's a really simple example, but it shows how powerful, or how people like to do things in any culture, in any situation, so it’s really powerful.

He's got 3 levels. Number 1 he walks in; number 2 he walks in and smiles; number 3 he pushes the button to gets out but he pushes one level up as well. He then runs up the stairs, and when the doors open he says: “I know you were talking about me.” And then they really phone the cops.


TF: Is there any culture in which it is normal not to turn around and stand facing the door? We need to know this just in case we're travelling somewhere.


GH: What I would do is, if you want to find that out Trevor, is just walk into an elevator and face straight in, see the reaction.


TF: I’ll find out pretty fast!


GH: It should give you a really clear indication whether you’ve done it right or not.

If you just expand that idea a little bit and think about in Britain, for example, there's a certain culture, very specific to Britain, when you go into a pub. You act in a pub in a very, very strong cultural way. If you think about a pub compared to outside of a pub in Britain or a bar any other where anyone else. You walk in, you can go to the bar, order a drink, and if there's somebody beside you, you can start talking to them. Now you would never do that sitting down on a bench in a street or just in a random situation. But in a pub, the culture makes that perfectly acceptable.

So of course, being in Britain you would turn around and say, it doesn't matter what the weather is like by the way, it can be snowing and blowing at gale force nine, but you’ll turn around and say: “Great weather, eh?” And the other person will say: “Ah yeah.”, and then the conversation will start.

All of these cultural norms are really ingrained in us, in our own cultures. And when we're in the culture, we understand it, and when we're outside it, we don't. So we look at the world through our own cultural lenses, if you like.

So that was a wee bit about why we're spending time on this. Because it's so universal. It's a great skill, it helps us to build up trust, and what is culture.

I don't know, Trevor, should we do a little exercise for folk?


TF: Sure. What have you got?


GH: OK, this is just to show how things are handled differently in different cultures. For everyone participating, here's a little cultural ethical dilemma for you. What I would like you to do is imagine that you're a passenger in a car driven by a close friend, a very close friend, you know, family, relative, partner, whatever. Unfortunately, your friend who's driving, hits a pedestrian. And you know for sure your friend was driving at 50 in a 30 zone. Other than the two of you, there were no witnesses. Nobody else saw this. Your friend's lawyer… this is where Trevor starts to get uncomfortable... your friend's lawyer says that if you testify under oath in court that your friend was only driving 30, it might save him or her from serious consequences.

OK, so you're in a car driven by a close friend, your friend hit someone, you know he or she was driving at 50 in a 30 zone, nobody else accept you two saw it, and the lawyer says if you testify under oath that he or she was only doing 30 it might save him or her from serious consequences.

So you can guess the next uncomfortable question that is coming, and that is: “Would you lie in court to help your friend?” Given that situation, would you or wouldn't you? You can put into the chat or just have the idea in your head, it's OK, I won’t embarrass anyone.


TF: Well, I'd be calling the Law Society to complain against the lawyer for suggesting that I lie in court, but you know that's quite a separate matter altogether.


GH: Seems fair, seems fair.

So, would you lie in court? The reason I'm asking this question is to connect it to cultures. I’m going to show you a range of cultures, and the higher up means it’s more likely that they would not to testify in favour of their friend. The further down it goes means that they are more likely to testify in favour of their friend in court. So let's have a look.

On the left you can see we've got, I've coloured them blue, so we've got Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. In the middle we’ve got Spain, Italy and India. And on the right we've got China, Russia, Indonesia, Venezuela and Korea.

Quite a marked difference, In Korea, Venezuela – you’re talking 30%. That means 70% would lie in court in favour of their friend. In Switzerland, maybe 5% would lie, and they're probably the Koreans living in Switzerland (joking), but 5% would. I've coloured the Chinese, Russians, Indonesian, Venezuela, and Korean red.

So what does it mean? Why? Why would the blues not and why would the reds help their friend?

Yes Richard, it is difficult and you're under oath in a courtroom.


LN: It’s tricky. It's not a great situation because you are torn between being truthful, being under oath, and then compromising this relationship which has long term consequences. If you rat out your friend, that's it for that friendship.


GH: But obviously people in Switzerland don't feel like that, do they?


TF: I'd be curious to find out from the Swiss and the German, all those the blue countries, I'd be curious to find out what they're weighing up because I have a feeling that the dilemma is more or less universal. There is going to be a dilemma, almost no matter where you fall on that spectrum, because you will absolutely have that conflict between your, what? On the one hand, it could be a duty to society and rules and so on, and on the other hand, a duty to your friend.

But I think what's interesting, is how I react when I see that graph at first is I immediately start thinking about ethics, who is more and who is less ethical based on that graph. And it only occurs to me after thinking that is, I'm obviously applying some filters on my own here, interpreting it as an ethical or an unethical response.


GH: The other thing that tends to come into play here as well, especially when I talk to people from China, Russia, Indonesia, Venezuelan, Korea and other countries is, and it might skew this graph a bit actually, is that it depends how much trust you have in the legal system in the country you're in.


TF: I hadn’t thought about that.


GH: The other thing that crops up quite a lot is, sometimes I let people answer this as “yes”, “no”, or “maybe, it depends”, and quite often it depends on things like do we know if the person was killed, injured, lightly, injured, bruised, offended, you know, where are we on the spectrum of death, sort of thing. So that also can skew the graph, trust in the in the legal system and how bad was it really?

The other thing is, especially in some countries and cultures, it comes up nearly every time, is that there are professionals at this game that can jump in front of cars and, just as the cars coming by you slap your hand on the bonnet, it makes a big loud noise, you fall down, and then it's a compensation thing. So that can skew things. But the general picture, if you don't give people this “maybe, it depends”, rather you force them into choosing yes or no, this is the way it goes.

Richard, [your comment about] honour and shame culture. Yes, there is definitely a bit of that. And also whether it's a rules- based culture where rules are the thing that drives them so everybody is subject to the same rules and they love that consistency, or whether it's relationships that people feel you need to have a personal relationships with the rules, the rules need to be adaptable and flexible enough that you can understand every given situation. Some of the “maybes” I talked about, they are some of those situations.

So the blue person, they're the ones that like one rule for everyone, because then it's consistent, objective, predictable, and therefore, fair. And the person who was treated in this way, the person in court, they says I've been treated in a fair way. So that's the blues, that's your Swiss, German, blue cultures if you like, very rule-based, rule-obedient cultures.

On the other end of that spectrum we had the reds, that is, I like or I prefer, preference again, a case by case policy, because then I know I can treat everybody in a very unique way, I can have a personal relationship-based approach, I can show discretion, make exceptions, be flexible and therefore I can be fair. And the person thinks I've been treated in a fair way.

Both cultures think they've been treated fairly using completely different approaches, one very rule-based, and one very relationship-based.


TF: So, one of the morals of the story: if you've got a blue-culture person and a red-culture person who are going to get into a car together, just in case there's an accident let the blue-culture person drive.


GH: That's one way of doing it. Now that could work.


TF: Because the relationship might not survive it if it was the other way around.


GH: Yeah. There was also  a lot of discussion about how close is the relationship, and that's why I say pick a close personal friend because, once you're talking to relationship-based cultures, obviously that's critical. How close is that relationship? How much trust do I have in them?

For the blues, they look at the reds and they think it's ok doing business with these guys, but I'm not sure if I trust the reds. The reds are thinking, I like working with the blues but when your back is against the wall they're not there for you, that's because they don't value the relationship the way I do.


TF: So I don't know if I can trust them.


GH: Exactly, I don't know. So again, it's a big spectrum, but the conclusions at either end are very similar.

This is one kind of cultural dimension, the rules and the relationships or the tasks and relationships. And there's lots of different cultural dimensions you can look at. You can't measure a culture on one dimension, it's got to be on a few.

Other ones which can create issues, I may have mentioned earlier, is how they approached the time. If you're in the Middle East and you've raised a meeting, and someone turns up one or two hours late, then they will just come in and how are you? how's your flight? And there's no issue there. Now, if it was a German? They’re very, very focused on time. Or Swiss or Japanese? Very, very focused on time. Again, they're getting stressed, getting annoyed, getting frustrated. But if you know this beforehand, it still might annoy you, but at least you'll understand that this is just a preference of the culture you're working in.


TF: Now, I wonder how that translates in the Zoom era because I've I certainly noticed something. I've always thought that, I'd say British and Canadian approaches on time are fairly similar, which is to say much closer to the German end of the spectrum than the Saudi end, but still a little bit forgiving. So if someone is going to be up to five minutes late for a meeting, that's considered more or less on time. And it's unusual I would say, in an English-speaking workplace, for someone to get really huffy about that, unless it was only a 15 minute meeting.

But I've noticed that forgiveness, both in myself and in people I'm dealing with, has been evaporating since we've all gone onto Zoom. So now it's like, OK we had a meeting at 3:00 o'clock, it's 3:02, what the hell? I'm sitting here looking at this blank screen! And I wonder that this might not affect the really strict cultures quite so much because they were already strict beforehand for face to face. I think we see it in British culture in the way we've responded to the pandemic, and I'd be curious to know in the more time-relaxed cultures, I'd be curious to find out from them if they've noticed a shift in behaviour because of Zoom as well.


GH: I think that’s a great point. I think what you say is probably correct that, when you're when on Zoom, just the mechanics of the process, you know just 5 minutes leeway or that sort of thing, I guess if they were to follow their cultural norms they would miss every single meeting that they’re supposed to be in.


TF: (laughing) They’d be arriving at a half hour Zoom meeting an hour late.


GH: I just wonder how it's going to work when we revert back to face to face again. Of course nobody knows how many of the habits and ways of working that we've picked up and adopted since the pandemic are going to remain and how many are going to be dropped. You know, I've got hopes that going to the pub after work will be reinstated as quickly as possible, but other ones, like this thing about flexible hybrid working, I think there's definitely massive benefits to that. Unless you're in the commercial property market, of course, in which case you would kind of like everyone to go back to the office, which is reasonable.

The time-thing is one that creates a lot of friction and the thing is we always talk about looking through our own cultural lenses – the main thing to think about is it's not personal, it's not an insult, it's not sleight, it's just the way that the society prefers to do various things.

We were invited to a wedding in Ghana. We turned up – I was in a suit in 33 degrees in 100% humidity outdoors and my wife was in a long dress – and it was for 2:00 o'clock. And we sat quietly being basted until 4:00 o'clock when one of the other guests turned up, and things never really kicked off till about 6:37 if I remember correctly. And by this time my suit was heading for the dry cleaners, big time. Well, absolutely.

And I was really kicking myself because this is what you do for a living. Why did you not ask somebody? But you know, I fell back into my cultural norms. I got the invitation, it had a time printed on it – I will be there on time or five minutes late at the worst – without thinking, I'm in a different culture, I should really think about checking this out.

I think the guy who just left, Richard, he said exactly the same thing: do your research before you step into a situation. And that was a really good example. I have never forgot that and I'll never do it again.

In Britain, being fashionably late, 5-10 minutes, is OK, but beyond that. Or turning up ahead of time for an event – that creates chaos! So, time, even within one culture, is quite an issue. But when you look at both ends of the spectrum, the differences are amazing.


LN: There's a the comment from Peggy. She said, when we're talking about the Zoom meeting, she said: “Amen. I subscribe to the five minute window for lateness on Zoom.” And she’s included a little Canada flag there, revealing her hand.


GH: And that’s what you say, Trevor. Canada and the UK are kind of aligned on that one.


TF: Right, but I really do think that people are less tolerant – 5 minutes late for a Zoom meeting for a lot of people is starting to be on the verge of feeling rude, and I just don't think we thought that way. 5 minutes was a perfectly acceptable lateness for an in-person meeting.

Although it is different. It depends on what kind of meeting you're showing up for and what your status is with the other person. If it's a co-worker, I think the five minutes under our conception of time, 5 minutes is OK. But if you're showing up for a sales call, you're showing up for something like that, absolutely do not be late for that. You're not going to get that forgiveness usually.


GH: Well, one question I'm asked quite a lot is, do people who are working in international companies, do their cultural preferences change from where they were before they went into an international company? And I don't think they do, but certain behaviours change.

For example in Indian where you've got quite a time-fluid approach, if they join an international company and they realised the rules of the game for that particular element, they will adopt that for their working life. The minute they go home again, they're back into what's expected, reinforced, and rewarded, back in their own culture again which is perfectly normal.

Then people say, are people’s cultural preference changing? And I think the answer is no. We can change some of the outside things like time-keeping within office hours and Zoom calls. But the hard core things that make Canadian culture Canadian, and British British, and Japanese Japanese, that I don't think changes much just because you've joined an organisation or joined profession or you’re working internationally.

So it's worthwhile keeping in mind with some behaviours, I think, people do modify. But way deep down, there are things that I'm going to the grave with.


TF: You might adjust it for the situation, but then grumble about it later. Or privately to one of your fellow Scottish coworkers who’s dealing with a company culture that's got a head office in another part of the world that has a different approach. Obviously they're setting the standards, I'll deal with it, but you're not going to like it.


LN: You mentioned this before in a previous conversation about how we can look at these things like challenges or problems, like these things that are baked in. But you said something about, it's how you frame it. Understanding both cultural lenses that you're both looking through. That it isn't so much the environment that you find yourself in, it's the your reaction, you're being able to adapt to that environment.


TF: Yeah exactly. That’s when I've done it successfully. There have been times when I've done it well and the times I haven't done it well. When I've been successful it’s because I've viewed that culture as being exactly that, it's the context, and it's a context in which I'm operating. And if I bring my own context, or if I'm with other people who share that same context, obviously it doesn't require the same level of effort because we just have that mutual understanding of that context and we understand how each other will react.

But the minute you start throwing in people who are coming from a different context, whether it's a different national culture or even, to certain extent, class culture even within Britain. For example, mixing groups of people who didn't grow up together. Or maybe just people who sort of grew up in a in a football culture versus a not going to football culture. Just some of those cultural norms just aren't there.

And if you are the interloper crossing into the other group, the context has changed. And it's figuring out OK, what bits of my natural context still apply and which ones don't? What do I need to learn about and figure out so I know that, when I see reactions from other people, I understand what bits of that reaction are actually their context operating to filter things that I've said and things that I've done so it lands with them differently.

It's a terribly challenging thing to do well, especially if you haven't done the research. And that's one thing I'd ask you then, Gerry. How do people figure this stuff out? What kind of resources are there for people who aren't experts in cultural communication, to help themselves?


GH: Well, there's an absolutely brilliant organisation called Communicating Culture run by a guy called Gerry Higgins.


TF: (laughing) Excellent!


GH: It comes back to the previous comment, by Richard, that you need to do your homework. So the resources are, obviously there's training available from companies like mine that will give you a generic overview. What we've done today, this was a real super quick taster. But the generic overview of cultures and how you can measure them and how you can compare them to one another from the point of view of where you are on that preference spectrum. And that's a great starting point.

And then as I said, if you know where you're going, you can focus in on the maybe four cultures that you're going to be dealing with. So if you're going to work with them, you're based in Edinburgh, you're going to be with a Japanese principal, who then has offices in India and Norway. It's the interaction between those ones, that's really interesting.

And so you would dive in a bit deeper into those four and say, Ok we know the generics, we know the general stuff, but let's look at those four and, using our imagination where do we see the opportunities?

Lucas touched on this – we talk about cultural challenges and difficulties. But the reality is, if you've done this homework and learned about cultural preferences, you can use that knowledge as a lever towards improving your business outcomes. So it's an opportunity.

If you know more than the other guy and you know how this all works and how to build relationships and how to build trust, you can really use it to your commercial advantage. Now it's not manipulating people and it's not being devious. It's just you know more about what's going on than they do.


TF: You know how to meet them on their turf, basically.


GH: Exactly, yeah. Meet them on their turf and make sure they understand when you do something why you do that. Because it's not just all one way, it's not just you finding out about them, it's them finding out about you.

So number one some basic training, then specific. And then, once you start trading or working internationally, despite what I've said about opportunities, challenges will come up because of the specifics of the situation. It's good to have someone to go back to and say: “Look, we went to India, this happened, we've all fallen out, we don't know why, what's going on?” It's that's another resource that providers that like mine that can help. We’ll say: “Ok, what happened? Explain it to me.” and then we’ll say: “Ah ok, could be that.”

You need to be careful that you don't make everything about cultural communication because there are jerks in the world that you just can't get on with. I mean, that's just nature, right? That's life. But when you're in that situation, more than often, it's got something to do with a cultural element. So that’s how I would suggest you approach it.

And finally, be curious about the culture you're going to. Want to know more about them. Just be respectful. Learn a few words of the language. I mean, I've done that with you guys – I now know about these French fries with cheese and gravy. See, I've done my homework.


TF: You still haven't remembered the word, though!


GH: Poutine?

TF: Right. And it’s quite hilarious when, Vladimir Putin, his name when it's transliterated into French, is “poutine”.  So the first time I ever saw a headline on a French newspaper with “Poutine does blah, blah, blah”, I found it quite hilarious because I'm imagining my French fries and gravy and cheese curds doing all sorts things.


GH: Of the two, I know which one I prefer.


TF: Me too.


LN: Maybe that's a place to stop before we get ourselves into cultural… speaking of cultural issues.


GH: That’s the problem with that stuff is you can't stop, that's the problem.


LN: Well, I'm feeling very Canadian and I'm looking at the time and I apologise if anyone had another meeting, but I think we should wrap it up here. It was great. Thank you. You provided this great taster, Gerry, and it's really exciting. I just want to dive into it more and learn more about it. So thank you very much for all of your insights.


GH: You're very welcome. It was fun guys. Thank you.


LN: Thank you to everyone who's joined us and again the next round table will be in May on the 12th and there will be links to that to sign up probably closer to the day, probably a month away. I will send the links for the on-demand recordings to catch up on.

All right, that's about it. Thanks again to everyone and we will see you next time. Ciao for now.




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