A good friend of mine, Chris, told me this fantastic story about his first encounter with his parents-in-law — a story that really drives home the importance of business culture. But if the story is going to have any impact, you’ve got to know Chris a little better.
A Man Cooking In Turkey
Chris is a really smart, well-travelled guy. He’s also pretty straightforward and humble — here’s an example: He was giving me a tour of the new business incubator he was setting up and casually mentioned that he wanted to bring “his bear” in to the break room as part of the decor. I let it pass, not really giving it a second thought. It was some time later that I found out that Chris’ “bear” was in fact a stuffed, formerly live bear that he had personally hunted, killed, skinned, and subsequently ate. It was only then that I found out that bear meat is, apparently, the most delicious meat of all (I have never tried it myself).
Chris is a pretty interesting guy to be around, but not just because of the stories he tells. He’s got a lot of experiences and likes to share them in every way possible. His background was originally in technology, and later he turned this into a strong business sense. And, for this story to make sense, you have to know he also went to culinary school and is an accomplished chef.
So, back to Chris’ story about meeting his new parents-in-law.
Chris met his Middle Eastern wife in the United States, where they also got married. It was a few years into the marriage before an opportunity arose to visit Turkey, where his wife originated. Naturally, Chris and his wife planned to stay with family — doing anything else would have been an unthinkable affront.
After staying with his in-laws for a few days — and, all the while enjoying some incredible home cooked food — Chris wanted to do something nice in return for being welcomed into the family so openly. He had seen how the food was prepared, and with his background he had already learned how to prepare it (partly from training and partly from watching his mother-in-law cook). So, one day he went out to the local market, bought all of the groceries, spices, and meats needed to make a wonderful Turkish meal, and brought it home. Then, he set out to cook a delicious meal for the family, intending to surprise them with his cooking (and hard work) when everyone returned home.
Much to Chris’ surprise, his extended family was absolutely horrified by what he had done. None of the family would touch even a tiny morsel of the dinner he had prepared — in fact, his mother-in-law would not even enter the kitchen. When Chris tried to prepare a plate of food, all of the women left the room! They refused to even sit where they would see him eat the food!
Needless to say, it was quite a shock and disappointment.
His wife explained to him, quite simply, telling Chris, “You can’t do that here. You’re a man, in my family’s house, you can’t cook or even help in the kitchen! I know your food is delicious, but nobody will touch it. I will — I’m going to go hide behind the door in my room and eat it because I know it’ll be wonderful, but I can’t let anyone see me eat it!”
Chris had unwittingly fallen victim to culture — to a “social cultural preference.” He had done something taboo in the local culture. There was nothing Chris could do to change the situation. The local culture that dated back thousands of years was set in stone, and was not going to change for Chris’ sake.
Before going on, let me point out that Turkey is a country with great diversity. With over 70 million citizens, it’s bound to be that way! As with many countries, the larger cities tend to be more metropolitan and modern, while towns and villages may be a bit more traditional or old fashioned. Chris’ story is not, of course, indicative of every family culture in Turkey.
Culture, or Business Culture?
Just as every country and every region and every people have social cultural preferences, the corporate world has business cultural preferences. These preferences deal with things like how we communicate, how a subordinate demonstrates respect for a superior, even the way we manage time. These business cultural preferences are deeply ingrained. They can’t be taught, trained, or educated away — it’s not about knowledge, it’s about knowing how to act properly in a particular social environment. Culture is something we start to pick up as a child, and that includes the culture of business in our country.
Chris’ story applies to the business world just as much as the family environment. If you are doing business internationally, in any way, you’ll find this blog interesting. A lot of the content here comes from my book, Building Successful Multinational Business Relationships. My intention in writing the book is to create an awareness of business cultural preferences within your own environment. The most effective way to deal with a foreign culture is to understand our own preferences, and to recognize different preferences as we discover them in other people and other environments. This sensitivity allows us to identify how culture varies, how our preferences don’t match someone else’s preferences. With the right awareness, we can then take action to learn and adapt our behavior, and even our environment.
What Is Culture Really?
So, what is culture, really? The fact is, from our own perspective when talking about our own culture, it won’t sound like “culture” at all. It’s just the way things are.
If you’re American, you’ll believe that everyone has a right to free speech, and believe that anything else is a human rights violation. You’ll know that American football is a national past time of incredible proportion (and you may be surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t really care about it much). You’ll enjoy two or three weeks of vacation each year (if you’re lucky). You will get married for love and think the idea of an arranged marriage is outlandish. You would find it scandalous to have to bribe a government official, and would likely report it as a crime. While you don’t look forward to it, you do rely on a just and reasonably efficient court system. If you are late to an appointment you’ll mutter an excuse if you’re five minutes late, apologize profusely if you’re ten minutes late, and being an hour late would be unthinkable (and probably means you lost the job). When talking with someone you get uncomfortable if they get closer than two feet. After college you rarely go to someone else’s home, and doing so is an invitation-only event (especially if a meal is involved). You think that some foreigners don’t say what they mean, which is just exasperating. You’ll probably hate the idea of using the train system (unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the few cities that has a good one). You find a two-party political system natural. You expect the politicians of both parties to be responsive to business, strong on defense, and concerned with the middle class. You find parliamentary systems (such as Italy’s) inefficient and a little bit comic.
But an American in Turkey can be completely out of place, as we learned from Chris’ visit to his parents-in-law. If you’re Turkish, you know about the concept of freedom of speech but you probably wouldn’t dare talk about it too much. If you’re male, you are likely a futbol fanatic and you support one of the major Turkish teams (and you think it’s silly to use a word like “soccer”). You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. You expect to marry for love; but the marriage of your parents was very likely arranged by their families (arranged marriage does still take place, particularly in more rural areas). You won’t seriously expect to transact business, or deal with officials, without paying bribes. You dread the court system and know that if you had problems with a customer, landlord, or supplier, taking them to court would be an ordeal that could take months or years. If you are late for an appointment, you’ll mutter an excuse after 30 minutes, and an hour late is still tolerable. You can’t feel comfortable in a conversation if the other person is more than a foot away from you. If a guest drops by, you will gladly serve them tea. When you are negotiating, it’s natural to play convoluted games to get what you want — and in social situations, it’s improper to be too direct. You don’t understand how Americans can get by with a two party system, although “Socialist,” “democratic,” “nationalist,” “republican,” “populist,” “leftist,” and “rightist,” are just vague words for doing approximately the same thing. You think that the situation of the country is hopeless, that none of the countries problems will ever be solved.
This is a small sampling of “culture” at a very high level. This blog delves into business culture, a very specific area that has to do with how people interact and behave in a business context. We’ll examine five of the core business cultural preferences, and hopefully along the way learn how our own culture varies from “their” culture. Understanding this difference is crucial to anyone doing business internationally.
I believe strongly in the power of stories, and so throughout this blog (and my book) you’ll find both informative articles as well as stories. I’ve tried to find stories that express the perspective of a particular culture as it relates to a particular article — and whenever possible, I’ve presented two stories: One from a Western perspective and one from an Eastern perspective. I’ve found it most effective to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes,” a saying that has been traced back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Put another way: If two people of the same culture share their experiences abroad, they will likely reinforce each other’s point of view. On the other hand, if two people from different cultures share their experiences, it can be quite enlightening.
I hope you will find both the stories, and the specific knowledge of business cultural preferences, enlightening.