How Language Reflects and Affects Work Culture

I had the greatest discussion over lunch yesterday. Lunches, by the way, are a great opportunity to join work and pleasure if you are passionate about your job.

Boooo! Now I’ll be bashed by the French, who couldn’t fathom having work intrude on their lunch hours (unless they’re in the food and beverage industry). On the other side of the spectrum are the Brits, who all seem to have a sandwich at their desks to optimise their working time and leave earlier in the evening. As usual, working with intelligent people who don’t care about how you plan your day as long as you get the job done, would be my preferred choice whichever type of lunch I choose to take.

But, that wasn’t what this post was going to be about. It was going to be about titles, and communication, between people from different cultures working together.

The woman I had lunch with yesterday works for a company where they had just purchased this new super tool to manage their human capital. A CV bank, search engine, automatic position matching, and emails to those who are part of it. The works. She recounted something that was extremely amusing, but at the same time, extremely telling of cultural differences.

When the “tool task force” had its first meeting, it became clear that even a simple thing, like greetings in automated e-mails, was actually not that simple.

The Americans and New Zealanders suggested the message start with:
– Hi John/Julia!
This caused an immediate outcry from the French who deemed this to show an outrageous lack of respect:
– Dear Mr/s Scott…would be much better.
The Germans went even further, saying that a person with an academic title must be addressed with his or her title:
– Dear Professor Scott…
Other Anglo-Saxons felt that a more relaxed but still not too “howdy dowdy” greeting would cut it just fine:
– Dear John/Julia…

The discussion lasted for two hours, which is to say how fundamentally different people from different cultures can look at even the simplest of things.

When a French person greets a manager at work, it is most often with a “vous” (the polite form of address, rather than “tu”) and a last name. With time, there can be a move towards a first name basis but keeping the “vous”. This marks a certain respect, but is also accompanies by the slightest mark of distance between two people. Many French do not find this to be an issue, mind you, it is part of society as a whole.

In English speaking countries, there is only one form of address, and that is “you”. You can then choose if you want to call people by their last name or their first. On an everyday basis, people working together tend to call each other by first names, regardless of hierarchy, with the potential exception of the CEO of a worldwide corporation.

OK, so there are differences in how you address people, so what? Well, it is actually more than that.

If you look at the culture at work in these different areas of the world, you will very quickly realise that the difference in address to some extent reflects the hierarchical structure in the corporate world. Americans (as well as for example Australians, New-Zealanders, and Swedes) tend to be pretty laid back in terms of hierarchy, and organisations tend to be pretty flat. Anyone can go to anyone to discuss a topic or ask for advice (within certain social boundaries, as everywhere). This contrasts to French and German companies where the seniority of a person plays a vital role in who can interact with them, and following which pecking order. You can’t go to the boss of your boss to discuss something without first discussing it with your direct boss, and you can’t go to the boss of another department unless you are a boss yourself.

French who work with Americans are faced with the “first name basis+you” formula, which, as long as you speak English, is not a problem. Now, imagine a French manager, an American manager, a French team member and an American one, discussing something together in the same meeting. The French employee will have a “vous” relation with the French boss and a “you” relation with the American boss. The American employee on the other hand will have a neutral “you” relation with both bosses.

The formal distance between the French employee and manager can in itself have the effect of limiting courage to suggest and discuss new ideas in an informal way. Doing this could cause “exposure” towards the Boss, who is clearly the Boss and not a person who helps support your great ideas. The American on the other hand, who has no such social barriers, will probably feel much more at ease saying things like: “Listen, Jacques/Jacqueline, I’ve got this idea, blablabla…”. So, they would have less of a difficult time to show leadership as employees.

Do Americans/Anglo-Saxons, have a competitive advantage because of lesser formalities? The woman I had lunch with thinks they do. Please share your opinion in the comment field below!

(Again, to avoid any outcries regarding generalisations: There are of course cases in any country of managers in whom the team members will have more, or less, confidence.)

This entry was posted in Leadership, Multi-National, Work Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Language Reflects and Affects Work Culture

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  4. Lady Lees says:

    I totally agree!
    I used (and still) tackle this issue during the first lessons with my business students.. “Cultural differences while greeting others”

    Just one little comment..
    I’m not sure if I misunderstood though

    I understood you put Americans and Anglo Saxons on one side and French on the other?!?!

    I would see Americans on one side (more informal) while both British and French (on the other side, that is, much more formal)

    British would go “how do u do” on the first meeting while Americans go directly hi, how are you

    So I’d put them on the French formal side rather than on American/Anglo Saxon side

    I have little experience with other Anglo Saxons like Australians or other European Anglo Saxons; not sure where to place them
    However based on a personal experience with the very few Australian/european Anglo Saxon I’ve met, basically in Almaty, I would put them on the American side, rather than on the British/French side (our meetings were social/cultural rather than professional though)

    So finally I believe you’re right saying American and Anglo Saxons on one side after excluding the British maybe?!?!

    Enjoy the weekend



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