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Cultural differences in training


A friend exclaimed one day, why do the French need all these meetings? For which I respond, why are the Americans so agreeable?

I used to say, generalisation is the basis of all jokes. So it is with much tongue in cheek and humour that I use the following examples to explain cultural differences. In my past life, I had the opportunity to conduct the same training in over 10 countries in Europe. In all the sessions, I find myself adapting each training workshop to the nationality of people I’m training. This is how I explained to my friends the cultural differences in the simplest way I can.

The French

With the French, a meeting is only to confirm what has been discussed and agreed over coffee, walkways, phone conversations and individual meetings. In fact, before the training, the material has been circulated, discussed and explained so many times in resume that I knew when they come for the final session, it is merely to reinforce and not to impart knowledge.

The key: the battle is already won before meeting in the field.

The Italians

During the training, I would find excuses after each 20-25 min session to leave the room, it could be coffee breaks for all, toilet breaks, smoke break etc. The Italians need to fight it out, discuss, dispute and argue. Since I don’t understand Italian, it works in my favour to leave the room and let them fight it out rather than implicating myself in the discussion. I would return to answer questions which had been filtered out by internal discussions.

The key: give them time to talk / fight it out. Freedom to express with passion is a way to their heart.

The Dutch

If you haven’t worked with the Dutch, your first encounter will be brutal. They are painfully honest and they mean no harm of disrespect. I usually allow for a 5 min question and answer after ever 45 mins for them to voice their thoughts. And then, I will address them logically and if it is a matter of policy, I would explain it as such. They will understand that some decisions may not appeal to them or seem to make sense but needed to be implemented. And we would be able to move to integrating that into their work life.

The key: accept what they have to say and react calmly. Respect their indivualism and you will be equally accepted.

The Spanish

I had the most fun with Spanish training sessions. They are warm and open people and welcome you with open arms and a great deal of jamon. If you return with the same passion, the rapport is immediately built. Having said that, their enthusiasm is also a reason for easy oversight. They will receive what you have to say quickly and with enthusiasm especially in a training environment. With the Spanish, I would devise difficult questions intent on testing their understanding and agreement. And maybe, I’ll add controversy to see how they would apply the understanding and force them to tell me exactly what they think. And of course, always with a pinch of humour to keep the mood light.

The key: always ask a second time to ensure understanding. Team enthusiasm with curiosity for the best results.

Central Eastern Europe

Every country in this block is different but I have found similar strategies in these countries: Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. While I’m training these countries, I cannot help but observe the impact of communism in the cultural. The importance of hierarchy and authority in getting agreement cannot be overstated. Once I had arrived in a training without the endorsement of figure of authority because the manager had left and a replacement had not been found. To my greatest distress, I had a walk out. After a coffee break, only 50% of the attendees returned. The rest had found reasons not to return. The next day, I had to assumed a figure of authority instead of the friendly trainer. When I said that if they leave, they can never return to the next sessions, I found attendance improve dramatically.

In the CEE block, I also find the best use of instant feedback. After each session, I would hand out colourd post-its for participant to comment what they liked, disliked, want to see more of. Each evenings I would adjust the next day’s training according to these feedbacks. This typically improves attendance and participation dramatically when they see that efforts had been taken to consider their feedback.

The key: always arrive after endorsement from a figurehead. If you have something to say, say it with authority.

Nothing written above is meant to harm, I have come to respect and love (in some way) the people I had met on the road. In general, I think it always work when I have no assumptions before I arrive. Work with the situation and adapt accordingly is my best philosophy thus far.

In Asia, I had a vastly different experience but that is a story for another time.

Tell me about your experiences, did you encounter the same or vastly different?

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