How to swim in different cultures


Cristiana Moschini Dubois is one of our trainers in international business. Originally from Italy, she came to Germany to study and met her husband, who is German with Belgian origins. Her daughters are multilingual and communicating in different languages is a normality at home. She calls herself and her family “citizens of Europe.” We wanted to know: what happens when different cultures or mentalities meet, what is so fascinating about teaching intercultural collaboration and what does it take to be successful in a multicultural environment?

Mrs. Dubois, you are trainer for international collaboration at Haufe Akademie. Why did you choose to work in intercultural communications?

Cristiana Dubois: Originally I am from Lombardy in Italy. At the end of the 80’s, when I came from Italy to Germany to study communications, I had no clue of the intercultural gap between my home country and my new environment. It turned out to be like an icy shower. Coming from Italy, I found not only the weather but also the people cold and strange. I remember once at the very beginning, I went to the bakery around the corner to buy some bread. There was a queue in front of the counter, and I waited my turn, but then I saw so many different types of bread. I didn’t know what to choose!

The lady behind the counter looked at me, pointed at the clock and with a strong Berlin accent said to me: “Girl, if you don’t know what you want, go back to the queue!” I was speechless, I thought: “How is she talking to me? Why is she so rude? What have I done wrong?” I left, but my curiosity was awakened. I decided to find out more about different forms of communication, especially between people from different cultural backgrounds and origins. As a result I specialised in intercultural management.

What is culture for you?

Cristiana Dubois: Our own culture surrounds us naturally, it is always there whether we want it or not. If we live in the environment we grew up in, we hardly notice it – like fish swimming in water. When our environment changes, in my case moving to Berlin, or by meeting people from other cultures, we perceive a change – things are not as “normal” as they were before. We have to learn to swim in a different way.

Our culture defines our behaviour and the norms of our social group. Of course within a certain cultural group, not all individuals behave the same. But the culture creates a setting in which every person develops his own individual personality.

The challenge is to deal with these differences successfully, particularly in working life where you interact with colleagues, clients and suppliers with different cultural backgrounds (e. g. national, religious, regional, corporate or branch culture), personally or virtually via e-mail or videoconference.

Can you name some examples of variations that can occur because of culture?

Cristiana Dubois: One of my clients told me the following story: A lunch meeting was planned with a potential Spanish customer. In the restaurant the Spanish businessman introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Marcos”. “Hoffmann, nice to meet you”, replied the client, a German engineer. During lunch together, Marcos talked about his daughter and his last family holiday, etc. Mr. Hoffmann in turn barely finished his Tapas before beginning to outline their business cooperation, its advantages and drawbacks. (Even on a business trip, time is money). In the end, their negotiation almost failed.

Mr. Hoffmann realised that unconsciously he offended his potential partner. His direct communication, getting straight to the point, collided with Marco’s need of personal interaction.

The German culture is task- and fact-based, in comparison with the Spanish one. The Latin people, generally speaking, are more relationship-oriented. Personal communication and a relaxed perception of time are crucial to build a solid base of trust.

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Why is it especially important for businesses to be aware of intercultural issues?

Cristiana Dubois: In the global business world you interact with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. It is important to be aware of how our own culture impacts our behaviour and our work. And then it is necessary to learn more about the unfamiliar culture aspects of our business partners, so that we can understand their way of behaving and negotiating. Mutual understanding and tolerance is crucial to doing international business successfully.

What kind of conflicts tends to occur in international teams? Can you tell us about a specific situation this happened?

Cristiana Dubois: Teams are more and more international; in the future this will be even more common. It is quite normal to have a team based in Germany with members from all over Europe, China, Russia, the United States and South America working together. Misunderstandings often occur because of the various needs of team members and the resulting behaviours, including the form of communication, how they deal with planning and scheduling, or a different understanding of leadership, to name a few examples.

Let me illustrate one case: Mr Schneider is a project manager in the IT department of a big company with headquarters in Bavaria. He and his employees are working on software development and configurations, together with the subsidiaries throughout Europe. The team is international, but they work very closely with the colleagues in France. The project developers in the headquarters often complain that the French colleagues call up a videoconference as soon as a problem appears.

It costs time, they talk a lot but the discussions are not always very efficient. They would prefer it if issues could be cleared by email. But the French colleagues do not really cooperate. Mr Schneider is puzzled.

Why does this tend to happen?

Cristiana Dubois: Generally in difficult situations people tent to judge negatively, often adopting stereotypes (e.g. “the French are inefficient”), without asking why the counterpart is acting in a different way. In this case the French colleagues, mainly socialised in a relationship-oriented environment, want a more direct contact (via videoconference) and they are prepared to invest more time to solve the matter in a personal way: they need to talk about it. In task-oriented cultures people prefer an efficient use of time and want to have documentation (written e-mails). They want their work to be “quick, efficient and transparent”.

How can these situations be avoided?

Cristiana Dubois: For successful intercultural cooperation we need more cultural competence and awareness in international teams. At the same time, leadership and leaders should be able to understand and effectively communicate with teams and individuals of different cultural backgrounds and support them.

This does not mean that everyone has to conform to the same cultural values. It means that people should understand where the differences and similarities lie and why individuals act in certain ways. In this way we can find a common ground on the basis of which we can live and work together.

How do you teach these concepts in your workshops?

Cristiana Dubois: I don’t teach, I facilitate. I give short inputs and support my clients for them to experience how cultural conflicts occur through practical activities and exercises.

We reflect about cultural competence, we analyse specific case studies and we train intercultural competence. This is mainly what we experienced with the IT team from the Bavarian company. The result was greater mutual understanding, open and personal communication about the different needs as well as some practical arrangements and solutions, accepted by all international team members.

Do you have a last piece of advice on how to be more interculturally aware in daily working life?

Cristiana Dubois: Be more aware of your own cultural identity, and what it entails. Then, don’t judge your counterpart, whoever it might be. Try to figure out who the person is. Think about how you can build trust with this person to establish a basis for doing business together. And learn as much as possible about the cultural peculiarities of your counterpart.

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Cristiana Moschini Dubois

Degree in Social and Business Communications. Intercultural communication consultant, trainer and coach with extensive cross-cultural experience. Lecturer at Business School, Hochschule RheinMain. Additional qualifications: Intercultural trainer. Area of expertise: Intercultural awareness training.

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