07/09/2014 12:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Intercultural Issues That Can Make Life Easy for Entrepreneurs, Expats and VCs


Photo copyright Camelia Skikos, used with permission

A few months ago I was asked by Alin Uhlmann, president of Tasuleasa Social, if I could help Romanian entrepreneurs learn how to present their ideas and accomplishments to international partners and investors. Inspired by my discussion with Mr. Uhlmann, I put together five essential issues that can be helpful in intercultural professional relationships.

1. "Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma'am"? Time Isn't Money Everywhere

If you are from United States, Germany or Scandinavia, remember that being right on time is a virtue only for you and a few other cultures. (For an in-depth explanation, please see Einstein's "Time and Relativity.") Additionally, keep in mind that speed networking, derived from its homologue speed dating, is an American invention. "Nice networking with you... next!" will not take you too far if you're doing business in India, Brazil, United Arab Emirates or Romania. People in these countries tend to value personal relationship and genuine interaction over punctuality and quantitative networking.

2. Me, Myself, and I, Then (Maybe) Others

There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of individual happiness and prosperity, except the fact that this might not necessarily be valued in China, Colombia or UAE. The key word here is "individual," which has a completely different meaning in the U.S., Australia and the UK, where people put a very strong emphasis on "meeting their individual needs" and would never choose loyalty to an employer over a bigger pay.


Photo copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

As we grow up in one culture or another, we unconsciously absorb its values, rituals, symbols and heroes, building our identity. Although I come from a relatively collectivistic culture (Romania), I cannot tell you how many times I was exasperated by my wife's family (from Colombia), who wanted to go everywhere together. Every time they were visiting, we had to rent a large van, because everybody wanted to do everything together, whether it was buying beer or picking up the child from daycare.

3. Hierarchy and Leadership: We Are All Buddies! Or Not?

Make sure you understand how leadership is viewed in the country where you are doing business: To what extent is it OK to talk so much about your accomplishments? To what extent it is OK to question authority, and if so, how is it done? Bragging about your amazingness when you interview for a job in Amsterdam will not give you a good start. ("Who is this shameless braggart?" the Dutch will wonder.) The same will happen if you modestly and quietly wait for questions while interviewing in New York or Silicon Valley, but for the opposite reason. ("This guy must be really incompetent!" the Americans will conclude.)

For example, young Romanian entrepreneurs need coaching in three essential areas: hierarchy and power distance, individuality, and uncertainty avoidance. To address these issues, I created with Alin Uhlmann and Tasuleasa Social a Global Leadership Program that will take place this summer in the gorgeous mountains of northern Transylvania.


Photo copyright Tasuleasa Social, used with permission

4. Party and Leisure Time

"What are you guys doing for New Year's Eve?"

"We're renting a movie, then we'll watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV."

"You are... what?!"

In order to make you understand the confusion this answer caused me in my first year living in the Bay Area, I have to explain how Romanians (or Serbians, Russians, Italians, French, Portuguese) celebrate New Year Eve. During the day we prepare lots (lots!) of food, to be matched with the six types of alcohol that are served. The party lasts until 6 in the morning, and then there is a remake that very evening.

When doing business across cultures, be aware that certain cultures value social relationships and cooperation more than productivity, achievement, and competition. Strolling, staring at the passersby and celebrating the New Year until dawn are also ways of reinforcing social relationships.

5. Alcohol, Sex and Guns

Did you just move from France to San Francisco and feel awkward about having to hide your can of beer in a paper bag if you are anywhere in public? Do you find it strange that an 18-year-old can legally own a gun in the U.S., but they may be thrown in jail if, within the next three years of their life, they are caught having a glass of wine? Or did you just move from Texas to Denmark for an expat assignment with your teenage kids, and you just heard that your neighbor's 15-year-old daughter is allowed to spend the night at her boyfriend's house?


Photo copyright Cosmin Gheorghe

Creating rigid laws is the most frequent way of dealing with the anxiety of the unknown. Uncertainty avoidance is correlated with ambiguity, aggression and expression of emotions. Whether you manage employees in a multicultural team or you are an expat, it is essential to know how different cultures manage uncertainty.

Cultural differences are essentially learned responses that have been effectively stamped in our emotional brain, mostly during our first five years of life, from which they influence our thoughts and behaviors. Obviously, not every person within a culture responds exactly the same way, and this is where the expertise of a skilled adviser comes in handy. And by the way, the expertise needs to be in social relationships rather than in business administration.