Retuning my cultural antenna

I had a funny reminder recently of how I’m going to face some real culture shock when I head back to Brussels. This story is a useful reminder of the importance of inter-cultural communication skills, and the dangers inherent in making assumptions.

I’m trying to find a role to go back to and had been advised to contact someone’s assistant to set up a meeting. I sent off an email, saying I was getting in touch as requested to set up the meeting and looked forward to it. After not hearing anything back for about a week, I contacted the initial person and asked him to check what was going on.

In the subsequent email train, I was forwarded their exchange and it turned out that the assistant thought my email was spam, because I started it with “hello” and didn’t present myself. She had in fact reported it as phishing!

Looking at her words, I realised I had made a number of mistakes. And a few of them came down to my inter-cultural skills needing a brush up.

There are a few leading studies that approach this topic with a framework – Hofstede and the Globe Project being two of them. What they have done is identify certain key cultural dimensions that apply across the world and map where countries sit in terms of these dimensions. The dimensions are things like power distance, uncertainty avoidance task orientation and collectivism.

I’ve been living in Australia for the last 8 years, a country with low power distance, low uncertainty avoidance and low long-term orientation (related to tasks/relationships in the above chart).

When we compare those scores with Belgium, it becomes very obvious where I went wrong

Belgium has high power distance, high uncertainty avoidance and high long-term orientation. So an informal email that didn’t beat around the bush about what was being asked for and didn’t paint the full picture was just about as bad as it can get!

The additional complication in working for the European Commission is that you are working with people of 26 different nationalities.

If we look at Hofstede’s dimensions through the prism of the contexts/nationalities of the people involved in the exchange I mentioned above, we can see these differences

And that assumes of course that individuals reflect the national measure, which, after 25 years working in a mixed culture, is pretty unlikely. But my experience when I was at the Commission was that a measure like the above couldn’t have been applied to EU officials as a group. The metaphor I always loved to describe what it’s like to work in an organisation with so many nationalities is that it’s a salad not a soup. In a soup, you cook everything together, you might even blend it so that the flavours are all inextricably linked. Working at the Commission is more like a salad: different ingredients tossed together, linked by the dressing, maybe taking on a hint of the stronger flavours, but retaining their own identity.

So as I get ready to go back, it’s clear that I need to retune my cultural antenna. I’m not going to stop being me, but I need to be more aware that the way I do things will seem alien to some people. As in all things, I’ll be taking some time to think through the consequences of my actions before I take them. And hopefully it will result in my emails getting read.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union offical, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @antoniamochan or @antoniam

One thought on “Retuning my cultural antenna

  1. Getting Commission Speak is going to be hard for you. In lockdown Mor has had to hold me back from swearing down his headphones as I now hear more than I used to.

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