Illusion of Similarity: hidden pitfalls in international business.

Nita Korsten


While cultural differences between you and your team members or you and your customers may not seem too big, the real problems arising from those differences might be greater than you think. Why? Because a culture clash is most likely not perceived as such, but rather as a personal incompatibility.

If you are an American or European who intends to do business in China or Japan, you’re probably very well aware of the cultural challenges laying ahead of you in terms of conducting business. Before setting off for initial talks with business partners or clients, you prepare yourself thoroughly by reading about the cultural differences you have to deal with. You might even hire a coach to help you understand and ‘interpret’ for you cross culturally.

However, if you are doing business with other western partners, all these precautions suddenly seem unnecessary; the majority of business partners speaks English anyway and the idea that cultures might stand in your way probably doesn’t even cross your mind.

I have once seen a very senior American manager in that position. He was appointed to lead the new business initiative of a joint venture between an American and a European organization. At the leadership summit of their European partner, the American manager presented his ideas with all of his usual powerful energy and self-confidence; however, he did not get a positive response. Because of his forceful performance he was perceived as arrogant, and it subsequently took him more than a year to build commitment for his approach.  

The other way around counts as well. Often I hear American business people discuss the peculiar way their European business partners downplay themselves, which is perceived as weak and uncertain, resulting in low trust in the business partners’ abilities.

Of course this is just one example of how cultures can be more different than you might think.

My point is that ignoring cross-cultural differences makes building true collaboration within international teams very hard, if not impossible. Without a keen awareness and understanding of others, companies cannot compete effectively and face losing time and money, even if the cultures involved seem to be compatible on first sight!