Yanks are direct when it comes to business. Friendly and cordial at the outset of a meeting, they are quick to get down to work — a style that some European counterparts can find disconcerting. Brits, on the other hand, prefer a “don't rock the boat” style when it comes to meetings, leaving things under-stated and vague. The French — often explicit and clear about what they desire — hate this about the British.
Stereotypical? Certainly. So in the world of international business, how useful can it be to so simply characterize the behavior of whole nations in a time of increasing multiculturalism and diversity?
Very useful, believe the folks at Meeting Professionals International. Of course, these characterizations are not quite as simple as they appear. Gleaned from an online cross-cultural analysis and briefing initiative called the Culture Active Tool, they are just several of thousands of observations recorded by Richard Lewis Communications, the developer of the tool, which is being launched this year by a partnership between the MPI Foundation Europe, MPI Foundation Canada, and the MPI Foundation, and sponsored by IMEX, the worldwide exhibition for incentive travel, meetings, and events, and MCI, a pan-European association, communications, and events management group.
Lewis, an expert on cross-cultural and language training, and the author of the book When Cultures Collide, divides culture into three categories — linear-active, multi-active, and reactive. By completing an online cultural assessment, planners will be able to see exactly where they fit in, culturally, in an industry that is becoming ever more universal.
While the tool hadn't been rolled out by late March, I was able to take a sneak peak during the MPI Professional Education Conference — Europe in Davos, Switzerland. Assigned a user name and password, I plunged headlong into the Culture Active Tool, and 95 questions later I had my personal cultural style — as well as my fundamental values and beliefs — assessed. I was slightly reassured by the declaration that “there are no right or wrong answers” to any of the questions.
Do I — on a scale of 1 to 7 — give work or family a higher priority? (I'll keep that answer to myself.) Do I show, hide, or partly hide my feelings? (On that one I answered “hide” — apparently a distinctly un-American feature.)
The Culture Active Tool pegged me as someone with a preponderance of reactive cultural characteristics. According to the tool, reactive cultures “rarely initiate action or discussion, preferring first to listen to and establish the other's position, then react to it and formulate their own.” We listen before we leap. Furthermore, I discovered I have more in common culturally with Canadians or residents of Singapore than I do with my fellow Americans, who, as part of a linear-active culture, tend to be task-oriented, direct, and unafraid of confrontation.
This is where the fun begins. Armed with this knowledge, I can click on the “recommendations” link to learn, for example, how I can make my linear-active speaking style (listening and talking equally) mesh with that of someone from France or Italy, who may have a more multi-active approach to conversation (meaning they tend to interrupt and even dominate). If I'm planning to do a site visit to Brazil with the intention of booking a meeting venue, I can click onto its national cultural profile and study up on anything from a typical Brazilian's listening habits to their general behavior at business meetings. I can even take a cultural quiz testing my knowledge of culture and customs in particular countries, or an action test to see how I might respond to a certain situation in a particular culture.
OK, this might all be painting our national cultures with a rather broad brush. But isn't there value in a tool that explains to this dumb American that sometimes when a Greek slightly nods his head upward, he means no? At least now I'll know to ask.
Michael Bassett is a staff writer for& Incentives and Financial & Insurance Meetings.