As I returned from visiting Europe this past summer, I was reminded of the cultural chasm that separates us. Aside from political and foreign policy rifts which have gouged this divide, there has and always will be a separation between the US and Europe. To understand it and to effectively bridge it, one must acknowledge that it exists.
I recall attending a cultural sensitivity seminar conducted by a Dutch consultant. She shared that the DNA of any culture is comprised of densely packed chromosomes of tradition, social class, its geography, history, priorities, values, way of life, weather, sports, music, religious composition, tendency toward tribalism, regionalism or nationalism and resources. In Europe, a few cultural axioms always prove true:
1) Smaller neighbors always resent larger neighbors
2) Larger neighbors tend to patronize smaller neighbors
3) What you see, is not necessarily what you get
4) There is no culture of blame, focus is usually on the issue not the person
5) The smaller the country, the longer the memory
In Holland, I was always fascinated by the Dutch and their attitude toward the Germans. These countries are economically tied to the hip and there is a saying, “ if Germany gets a cold, the Dutch get pneumonia”. However, those that live in Rotterdam will never forget their city being destroyed in WWII. I recall a Dutch cab driver telling me that he always gave German tourists the wrong directions and he cannot wait for the men in Orange to beat the Germans in any national match.
To an average Dutchman, a German is fat, drives a Mercedes, nationalistic, arrogant, obsessed by details, inflexible, humorless, dig big holes in the sand on vacation and always arrive at 6am to stake out their area on the beach for the entire day. They get up at 6:30 am and “ ja” always means “ja”. Once they get a “no”, the Germans stop. The Germans arrive ten minutes early to meetings. They are prepared. There are different definitions of quality. For some in Europe, “ good is good enough”. For the Germans, “ The best is just about enough”. Does this description sound familiar to you ? In WWII US soldiers commented that the one country whose citizens most resembled Americans in terms of work ethic, community stewardship, focus on initiative and directness were – -The Germans.
The Dutch are a trading nation where the Germans are an industrial nation. The Dutch speak in diminutives and constantly downplay their success. “Oh, that little car.” “It’s not much, that tiny house.” “ That is a nice dress you are wearing,” to which the response is always immediate, “ I bought it on sale “. The Dutch do not show a lot of emotion. When a Dutchman is upset, he/she has three phases of anger : “ I am surprised”, “ I am worried”, “ I am quietly furious “. The Dutch spent 80 years fighting Spain and have spent centuries fighting against the North Sea, and as a result they are by nature, stubborn, doubting Thomases that once convinced, loyally and effectively execute. After fighting together so long to hold back the sea, they are team players. There is a deeply developed sense of consensus. Decisions take a long time but commitment is also more sustained once the decision is determined.
Then there are the Belgians. Belgium does not really exist as we know it – – it is in fact, two nations, Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia. To a French Waloon, “oui” means yes in principal to be changed at any time in the future. Where the Wallonians might be made aware of an obstacle, they will suggest that it be only be confronted when it presents itself. The Flemish Belgians will insist that provisions be made now for the bridge that is 500 kilometers away. The French Belgians consider their neighbors the Dutch: arrogant, blunt, direct, stingy, assertive, always selling hot air, uneducated know-it-alls…Wait, isn’t that what the Dutch say about their neighbors the Germans?
Europe views the US as unaware of any other culture. We are viewed as arrogant and prone to shoot first and ask questions later. We are seen as superficial, focused on quantity instead of quality, simplistic, naïve, prone to blame versus focus on issues, top down, poorly educated, dictatorial, mono lingual and short term focused. Hmmm. Seeing a pattern developing here ? The US views Europe often as protracted decision makers, untidy, not result oriented, burdened with an unrealistic social system, confused over the difference between history and tradition, ambiguous, multi-lingual and passive/aggressive.
As we have seen in this continental food chain, the larger country in the end, always views the smaller one as passive aggressive and the smaller country views the larger as unilateral and arrogant. It is important when trying to bridge these natural fault lines and cultural footfalls with humility and honesty. In discussing expectations or intentions with someone from another culture, acknowledge your ignorance and think of the social opportunity as a small child. The child must be nurtured and spoon fed. Children adapt but we must recognize that culture is emotional and part of one’s identity. To diminish the culture is to diminish the person. To denigrate the person is to broaden the divide you ultimately will want to cross.
Whenever the culture card is played, acknowledge it and be direct about differences of opinion. Those differences can be bridged. The shifting loyalties and alliances that exist within Europe and the world are forever changing and it does not take much to move an entire continent into a direction where we are celebrating similarities instead of magnifying differences. As Thomas Freidman so aptly shares, the world is indeed flat. However, to get from one end of the world to the other safely and intelligently, you need to understand how important the deck of culture cards is to your success. We can either engage in an enlightened game of global understanding or end up playing “Fifty-Two Card Pick Up”.