Podcast: How to master cross-cultural business

By Doug Bolton

Podcast: How to master cross-cultural business

Digtalisation has undoubtedly brought the world closer together. But we're still pretty far apart. Despite tools like Zoom making it easy to work across borders, cultural differences are harder to overcome. To find out more about how to deal with them, and the kinds of possibilities they create, I spoke to Zooma project manager Martin Palmqvist. 

Martin has worked in an impressive number of countries - some fairly close to home in Europe, and others further afield in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

He was an obvious choice of guest for an episode about cultural differences and business. I spoke to him about the challenges of working in a totally foreign culture and how you can overcome them, even when you're in the minority.

We also spoke about the effects of the pandemic and remote work on cross-cultural understanding. It's certainly more eco-friendly to call someone on Zoom than to fly across the world for a meeting, but are businesses going to suffer from the lack of deeper cultural awareness that comes with having an employee living and working in a foreign country?

If you work across long distances, or if you're just interested in cultural differences, then I think you'll like this episode. You can listen to it and subscribe to the pod on the platform of your choice using the links below. You can also find the transcription further down if you're in a rush. Enjoy!

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DB: So welcome, Martin!

MP: Thank you, Doug.

DB: To The Onlinification Pod. Is this your first podcast?

MP: It is, actually. I did some student radio episodes some 20 years ago, so I've been in the format, but not in an actual podcast.

DB: So you're an expert already, basically.

MP: Sort of.

DB: Well, you certainly, you haven't been on The Onlification Pod before, at least.

MP: I haven't.

DB: We're collecting all of the Zoomers over time, we're getting new guests, so that's always nice. Before we get started, since you've never been on before, maybe you could tell a bit about who you are and what you do at Zooma.

MP: Yes, I am one of the project managers working with new dot .coms for large business-to-business companies. And I've been with Zooma for almost six months now and it's fantastic learning to be on the supplier side, coming from a history on the customer side, maybe most of my roles, historically speaking. So my red thread basically is digital marketing. So it's great to be at a digital marketing agency.

DB: Good, and the topic for today, I was thinking about what we should speak about yesterday, and I thought a good discussion to have would be about doing business internationally, you know, dealing with very different business cultures at work, you know, and I thought that would be a good topic to speak to you about because you've worked in quite a few faraway places, right?

MP: Right. I have been fortunate enough to travel to all continents, actually throughout my different job roles and also in my youth more before getting family, and before corona and before digitalisation, which makes it so much easier to meet over distance compared with when the internet connections were too bad so a lot of travelling had to take place, that is not as necessary anymore, even though we can never replace the face to face meeting. So I've been in several countries throughout Asia, such as China, India, South Korea, Singapore, to mention a few, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, northern Africa, I was working in the region of northern Africa, where the main markets are Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and also southern Africa with Angola, for instance, and also South Africa, where I actually lived for a couple of years working as an expat. And I've been to us some parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Central America and Mexico, and quite a few countries throughout Europe as well. Not that much in Eastern Europe, but many European countries as well, but mostly far away markets.

DB: Yeah, I think that's a good topic for me and for Zooma to learn a bit more about, because I also have experience of international, cross-cultural work, except only between the UK and Sweden and some European countries, you know, so there's certainly, you know, there's a difference, there's different cultures, but they're generally more similar than they are different. It's not too much of a culture shock, I don't think. But you know, if you compare how it is to working and the jobs you've worked in, in Sweden or Europe in general, and some of these more far-flung places like South Africa or north Africa, for example, what were some of the biggest differences you noticed during those times?

MP: The big difference with Sweden also compared to some European markets, but it's even bigger if you go far away, is that in Sweden, there are lots and lots and lots of meetings. And the hierarchy is not that important. It's quite flat organizations and it's a huge focus on consensus. Everybody needs to agree. Abroad, it's more "OK, we can agree to disagree." And also in Sweden, I've been mostly working in headquarter organisations where there can be quite some politics and hidden agendas. But that's also common in some of the international markets where people can seem extremely friendly, but you never know what they're actually up to. At the same time, coming from a head office or a regional office, you are there to help out and to give support, which makes you maybe more welcome than you would be if you would be there on a permanent basis, which again, I've always also been, which I can elaborate a little bit on with Sweden South Africa, but that's the main difference with Sweden, so you have to be more sensitive about the hierarchies and take that into consideration. But the biggest learning for me is to listen, understand. Like having big ears and a small mouth. To be able to adapt to the situations you're in and to the people and the surroundings, and also to make sure that you are there to help and support, and the more you can agree on that, the more of a synergy effect. You can have a win-win situation where everybody will be winning. If if you are more transparent. So that's something that I always try to encourage, but to cope with the differences. As mentioned, most important is to listen, understand and accept the cultural differences, and try to smoothly navigate by being like observant and analyse deeply what you're working with at the actual moment. Ask for as much transparency as possible, which will cater for a win-win and give the feeling that you are adding value rather than wasting someone's time.

DB: Yeah, because I can imagine maybe that's a difficult situation if you're, you know, the Swedish guy representing the mothership, the kind of main company in one of these national subsidiaries or something, I would imagine it might be. And, you know, perhaps people are concerned that you're like, it's not always a good reaction. If someone arrives from headquarters, perhaps they're worried that you're going to start saying, "do this, do this", you know?

MP: Yes, exactly. I've always tried to avoid the feeling of Big Brother is watching you, that the police department is telling them what not to do, but rather support the marketing in what to do. And also, I've been fortunate, fortunate enough to be on headquarter, regional, and market level, so I can say that I've been in your situation. I know exactly how lonely it can be to try to make everything that's on your plate. So I'm here to help you and to guide you. Rather than telling you what not to do and giving you homework and so on and so forth, I'm not here to make you feel bad. I'm here to support and help.

DB: Exactly. We mentioned some of these challenges about working in a different culture. But how can you handle some of them, especially when you're in a minority? Perhaps if you're representing the company and you're working with them, you know, you're perhaps still the Swedish guy in a company full of South Africans or Egyptians or something, you know?

MP: I think do some research before your business trip or before you're moving to a new country. At the same time, avoid too much generalizing, because there are always exceptions. Also, when it comes to cultural differences, avoid being offended by them and use common sense, because that always applies anywhere, and try to use your social skills. If you listen to people and look them in the eyes, they will respect you and listen to you and talk to you, if they see that you're there to help and support and to help out, basically.

DB: And did you ever find that you had a bit of leeway? You know, if you did something or you found yourself in a situation where you didn't follow the culture, or the business culture of wherever you were? Did people generally kind of make an exception for you? You know, it's like, "Oh, it's OK, he's not from here. He doesn't maybe know everything that we do."

MP: Or if you're there for a short bit of time, that's often the case. But when I moved to South Africa, it was much more that I had to adapt, adapt to the way of working there. And the South African culture is quite frank and straightforward, which I do appreciate, coming from head offices where there can be a lot of politics and hidden agendas, and also in some other cultures. So coming there with like Swedish humbleness can be seen as a weakness. But as long as you stand up for yourself, you gain respect, which is definitely needed. And also, I started up like the marketing field in South Africa, beforehand it was outsourced. So trying to tell the sales guys in South Africa selling all the trucks, that was the case for me, that the brand is important and the marketing is important for the margin, et cetera. That was quite an uphill to start with, but over time I managed to get them on board and realize the importance of the brand and of the marketing activities that we both can gain from. Because going hand in hand with sales and marketing is quite often a successful recipe to be able to get your premium product out there, with with the margins and the customer satisfaction that goes hand in hand to keep the brand up there.

DB: Yeah, we spoke a bit about some of the big differences. And, you know, obviously when you you land somewhere, there are some very obvious ones, but I think, you know, especially when you spend a longer period of time somewhere, there's some less obvious ones that crop up. And I would say I've noticed that as well. In Sweden, you know, you come to Sweden from England and it seems fairly similar. Everyone speaks English and everything kind of works fairly similarly. It's only after a period of months or years, once you're a part of the culture that you start noticing some of these differences that you maybe didn't notice at first. Did you come across anything like that in South Africa, for example?

MP: Yes, especially from outside of work. When you live somewhere, you need to also see and feel and respect the differences there. South Africa is quite different from security aspects. So even though having lived there I think it's quite exaggerated, and as I said before, common sense applies as almost anywhere, but I lived in a fenced community, so before daring to go out running on the streets, I joined a running club to be rather safe than sorry when running outdoors, but which ended up being a fantastic experience because it created great friendships and it was a great atmosphere and seeing the nature and running in places where I was advised not to be on my own. But we were big, big groups of people running, and I never felt scared in South Africa. But I use common sense and avoided being alone outdoors in the darkness, etc. So again, common sense takes you quite a bit and South Africans are extremely friendly and extremely helpful. But also, it's an extremely segregated country, which is something that that you have to respect and understand. And I think that poor people that you see on the streets etc, what you need to do basically is to see them, and not neglect them. That will make them less friendly, so to speak.

DB: Yeah, I just thought now, with everything you know, like, we're recording this podcast, you're at home and I'm at home. You know, at Zooma, we've been working from home for almost two years and only just recently started going back to the office. And with the pandemic, obviously it's possible now to travel again to some degree, but I think it's probably fair to say that more and more, at least international business relations are going to be, you know, over Zoom and at distance, you know, since you know you don't need to send some guy in a plane halfway across the world for a meeting and stuff like that. And do you think the effects of all that maybe would have an impact on a business, because then you don't have someone who's living in that country and hasn't had time to kind of get a grip of the business culture in that country? And I can just imagine that maybe that could lead to more misunderstandings and conflicts.

MP: Yeah, I think so, too. There are downsides to it, of course. At the same time, the digital meeting is somehow also fantastic to have the possibility to be more sustainable and to have more meetings face to face. Because especially when you are like one on one, like we are now you, you look the other person in the eyes in the way that you might not do at the coffee machine, at the office and so on and so forth, especially in bigger crowds, it's sometimes easier to listen to the person talking. But when it comes to the cultural and multicultural side, yes, there are elements that you are missing, I believe, when you are not meeting face to face in person in real life. So I think that even though the digital meeting can replace most of the travelling and most of face to face, there is still a combination needed. So I think then when corona now is more under control, travelling will increase a bit at least. And I think that makes sense to actually get the possbility to meet, but with digital events, etc. and so on and so forth, that's fantastic. So there are many opportunities given by digitalisation and not meeting face to face, but combine them for the best success.

DB: I think you've mentioned a bit already, but just to summarise, if you were to meet someone working at a Swedish or European company, possibly who's about to head off on some two-year posting to China or South Africa or Latin America, you know, obviously these are very, very different countries and cultures. But what kind of general tips would you give to that person?

MP: Be as open-minded as you can, do as much research as you can prior to the trip, but don't generalize too much. And especially early on, have big ears and a small mouth. Listen, observe, and try to smoothly and gently navigate and find your spot, but also make sure to stand up for yourself, because Swedes are quite often seen, seen as maybe too humble, too down to earth, and to consensus-oriented. I am extremely Swedish in that sense, being consensus-oriented, but also, given all the multicultural opportunities, I've understood the need to sometimes also agree to disagree and to pick the fights you have to, and you need to either agree to disagree, or agree to agree, but not just to have another meeting, because that's just too Swedish, and not sort things out, rather sort things out and move on. And also try to agree as much as possible on what are the targets here, the KPIs or OKRs or whatever you wish to call them? As long as you have targets that you agree on, the culture shouldn't be an obstacle, but rather embrace it. It's fun to work with different cultures and dynamic teams than with homogeneous teams, I think.

DB: Very good. And finally, some travel tips. What should people do if they find themselves in South Africa, on business or pleasure?

MP: Pleasure specifically, go to the coast, southwest coast, Cape Town is probably the best area I've ever experienced. Everything is there, and people are extremely friendly, as I said, and that applies to all of South Africa. But in Cape Town you have so much nature, you have all the vineyards. You can see whales, baboons, white sharks. It's a fantastic place, and it's also fantastic value for money. The South African currency is quite bad, or weak, weak is the word I'm looking for, actually, and which makes it especially, like wining and dining and living is extremely cheap, at least for a Swede. So if you compare it to many other countries where the flight ticket might be cheap and living and doing stuff is what's expensive, it's the other way around in South Africa. And also don't be afraid to bring family there because it's also extremely family-oriented. In every restaurant, there is a kid's playing area and so on. So I've been there with my family and we are even looking for nurturing a dream to maybe have a place there someday. And also, there's something called the Garden Route, which goes from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. So it's basically all of the southern coastline. And then you follow that even more up on the east side to Durban. So the coastline is fantastic. But then there are also quite some interesting political history and so on and so forth around Johannesburg and Pretoria, which is the capital nearby Johannesburg. And of course, the Kruger Park, to watch the animals in real life, so to speak. And there is something called braai, B-R-A-A-I, it's Dutch for barbecue, the meat and sausages and so on, and also fish, everything from the kitchen is fantastic and also extremely priceworthy, as mentioned.

DB: Good, well, we branched out into a bit of a travel podcast there, but there's nothing wrong with that. Thank you very much, Martin, for joining us, I hope you enjoyed your podcast experience and hopefully you'll be back soon.

MP: Yeah, I hope so, too. Perfect.

DB: Great. Well, we'll speak to each other soon.

MP: We do. Thank you.

DB: Thanks again. Bye, bye bye.

Doug Bolton
Doug has been a Content Producer at Zooma since 2021. Originally English, he now lives in Sweden.
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