Just don't… showing the soles of your feet is an insult in the Middle East ©Westend61/Getty Images
Just don't… showing the soles of your feet is an insult in the Middle East ©Westend61/Getty Images

Procurement's guide to cultural awareness

Never give a clock as a gift in China, and other important cultural differences. Procurement professionals need to be culturally aware if they are to succeed in an increasingly global working environment 

Once upon a time, a carriage clock might have been the go-to gift for the retiring UK executive, but give one as a present in China and you’d be committing a huge faux pas. Why? Because in Chinese the phrase “giving a clock” sounds the same as “attending a funeral.”

That’s just one example of the need to be sensitive to cultural nuances when working globally. In the words of Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and expert on working across different cultures: “Although you may have been a very successful leader in your own culture, if you hope to motivate and engage people around the globe, you will need a multifaceted approach.” That statement will resonate with procurement and supply professionals who by the nature of their work are likely to be in constant contact with suppliers or customers around the world. Differences in culture can occur in communication and even how and when business relationships can be conducted. 

High vs low context

Communication can be separated by “high and low context”, says Thibaut Eissautier, a French national who has held senior roles in multinationals including head of procurement across 80 countries at Diageo and is now group CPO at Turkish confectionary giant Pladis (maker of brands including McVities and Godiva). 

Eissautier, who is married to a Colombian and speaks fluent French, Spanish and English, defines low context, as is practised in the US, as “saying exactly what you mean”. High context, which is common in Japan, “is leaving much to be appreciated depending on the circumstances, recognising that the world is complex and circumstances change”.

He explains: “In the US you often have to clarify when you tell a joke to make sure people don’t misunderstand. In Turkey, you will often have to appreciate what you are told in the context and you need to think about it afterwards. France is halfway and the high context is seen in second degree statements or humour.” 

Now a director of the College Francais Bilingue de Londres, Eissautier adds that in the Anglo-Saxon world, where he has spent most of his professional life, writing is appreciated as it gives clarity and accountability. “The more relationship-based the country, the more verbal communication might be enjoyed,” he says.

Understanding how and when to communicate can be a complicated issue, depending on who you are talking to. And Eissautier has noticed that in the Western world there is a clear separation between business and private time, which is not the case in other regions. “In Turkey, for example, there is no difference,” he says. “People call each other to do business at any time or during weekends. In Japan, real issues are often discussed in the evening at a bar. In France, lunch is a great place to get to know the other person better and progress.”

One senior head of procurement and supply at a leading multinational has seen differences between Europe and the US about the degree of commitment to work. 

Having previously worked at investment banks in New York, she says that “work culture is all pervasive” in the US. “People work extremely long hours in America, and don’t benefit from the kind of work/life balance seen in the UK,” she adds.

Pecking order

The more hierarchical business culture of the US combined with weaker employee rights (compared to Europe) means people are under greater pressure to succeed. “The need to prove themselves will often manifest itself in the willingness to continue working hours that Europeans aren’t prepared to,” she adds.

Just how business is conducted can also depend on the tone of those taking part. The CPO identifies the US approach as more direct – an explicit demand – compared to a European culture that is more collaborative. “Business is conducted more in the spirit of relationships and is less litigious than the US,” she says.

Much can depend on the importance of status, depending on the regions you are working with. Senior procurement professional Philip Maher, who has held roles across investment banks and global firms, advises that identifying the status of participants on a conference call can be an important issue in some parts of the world.

“In the US, for example, where status is important, it might be useful to note the pecking order of a number of people on a call, as many might have SVP or MD positions, but there might be a clear hierarchy that needs to be observed,” he says. “In that respect it’s sometimes important to check the roles of attendees on such calls to understand who might take a lead in certain parts of conversation.”

In the EMEA and Asia-Pacific regions a less structured corporate culture exists in such situations, he observes. “There is a real difference about how such calls take place,” Maher says. “Outside the US, it’s more relaxed about who comes on the call and who says what.”

Arguing the case

When it comes to the nitty gritty of a deal there are often very real differences, says Eissautier, especially when it comes credibility. “In the Anglo-Saxon world, if you change your position you must explain how you went from A to B, otherwise you lose credibility. In France, it is OK to change your goals if the world changes, and in Turkey you’re considered a fool if you do not grab the chance to raise your prices when the opportunity arises.”

Confrontation will take different forms across locations, he adds. “The French have no problem being confrontational; it is a way to be authentic and people will generally not get offended. In Turkey, you would not confront others in public and in the Anglo-Saxon world, it is generally avoided.”  

So how does one develop an awareness to prevent creating the internal and external cultural problems that Eissautier is convinced are capable of destroying companies? He recommends a combination of inquisitiveness and sensitivity. “Most important is to be respectful and authentic: if you get it wrong, everyone will appreciate you tried,” he says. “But if you don’t understand each other  – or communicate effectively – you can’t collaborate effectively.”

Organisations should plan ahead to meet their cultural awareness requirements – rather than having to unpick messy problems afterwards, advises Simon Foley, head of cultural competence training at Marcus Evans Linguarama. 

Having trained nationals from countries as diverse as China, Saudi Arabia and Mozambique in skills for effective meeting, negotiation and communication with global partners, he says: “Being prepared means at least having some notions of what being a part of the target culture involves and what their expectations might be.” 

Foley recommends bringing an openness of mind to new cultural exchanges: “Expect the unexpected and embrace it. Be aware that since you are absolutely a product of your own culture, you are, to some extent, half the problem.”

“We need to move away from the idea that ‘foreigners’ are the ones who do weird things that need to be managed,” he adds. “An awareness of what other cultures may find surprising about you and how you work is a great first step.”

Beyond the moment

One significant difference between cultures that is vital for any procurement and supply professionals to grasp is the significance of relationships, Foley adds. “Because the UK and the US are very task oriented cultures, we give value and recognition for the work that people do, not for who they are,” he explains. “So we build apparently intense relationships with people for the duration of a project and then drop them when we move on.” 

But, he adds, in contrast, a great number of the world’s working population operate on a relationship-based culture. “It is not possible for them to do business with someone they don’t know or have some kind of relationship with,” he stresses. 

“Anyone who has done business in China, for example, will tell you of the seemingly endless banquets, dinners, drinks events. Socialising has a vital part to play in the setting up of any deal. Unless you know what is expected of you in these situations, you risk coming a cropper.”

He adds: “We tend, in the West perhaps, to think of these ‘social events’ as being more appropriate to after the deal, to celebrate. To the Chinese they are a necessary prelude. To refuse an invitation offered may well cause confusion and offence.”

One global culture? 

So, is there a creep toward a more uniform set of values as multinationals expand their presence around the world? Foley believes that while many large corporations develop their own internal culture “you need to always bear in mind that local culture will adapt or colour any supra-national view”. 

He stresses the importance for procurement and supply professionals to spread the importance of understanding different cultures, as supply chains become ever more complex, with more partners involved. “Out of every hundred people on the planet, 55 are Asian,” he says. “As organisations are increasingly spreading their production out across the world there must inevitably be a greater need for cultural competence.

“We need also to bear in mind that procurement and supply teams themselves, within countries and within organisations, are increasingly multi-cultural so professionals in this area need these skills to work with and manage their own teams, before even thinking about external stakeholders.”  

Cultural no-nos

Some of the quirkier breaches of business etiquette from around the world  

• Giving the gift of a clock or umbrella in China is to be avoided, as both words sound similar to the Chinese word for attending a funeral and could therefore send the wrong message. 

• Don’t be overly friendly in France. You’re more likely to gain respect if you appear restrained when dealing with French businesspeople.

• In Argentina, stepping back will look like an insult, so in close quarters it’s better manners to step to the side to give more space.

• Never greet a Chinese counterpart with only their first name. Always use their last name and their title.

• You shouldn’t touch a Korean on the back of the head (just in case you were planning to…) - it’s very rude.

• It’s poor business etiquette in India if you mistakenly brush or step on someone’s foot, and it’s wise to apologise immediately. Indians consider the feet unclean, and even nudging someone with your foot is a grave insult.

• Blowing your nose in public is considered a faux pas in Japan. A smart move is to excuse yourself and go to the restroom to blow your nose.

• If you’re a feet-on-the-table type, never wave the soles of your feet around in a meeting in the Middle East (this probably also applies to meetings elsewhere in the world).

• Don’t refuse a drink when doing business with Russians. They often conduct business dinners with a dose of vodka, and declining a glass is an insult to their hospitality.

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