[Author's note: This text is written from the perspective of German communication behaviour, which is also prevalent in varying degrees in other Northern European cultures. Therefore, depending on where you're from, some of the points made, in particular in the checklists, may not readily apply to your situation.]

"It's my treat today": Hitting the right tone in Spain

by Alexia Petersen

I recently enjoyed a meal in a restaurant with some Spanish friends who live and work in Germany. At the end of the meal, as the waiter left our table having cashed our bill, my friends expressed their distaste for this distinct German practice. As if it weren't already awkward enough dissecting the total down to every last beer and side order of salad, money is counted out right there at the table! The transaction can't possibly get more technical than that, and there is nothing, they insist, that kills the mood of the evening with more finality. What is the point, they cannot comprehend, when it all works out to the same. One pays now, the other reciprocates later. Everyone will have his turn!

My friends make a good point, one shared by a wider range of cultures than they probably realise. Reciprocation as a social value is present in most cultures. However, different cultures can practise it in different situations, with the result that "cues" from one culture that imply mutuality go completely unregistered by another.

For the Spaniard, who actually pays is of secondary value to offering to pay for the other. In a culture that prioritises the quality of the relationship, be it personal or business, the gesture supersedes who is technically guest and who the host. It communicates the trust and mutual obligations on which the relationship is built. Such cues are, as in this example, universally registered at the dinner table... if everyone speaks the same cultural vocabulary.

What a Spaniard cannot expect is to speak the same cultural vocabulary with Germans at a German table, and be understood. The more "technical" elements of German social etiquette within even personal relationships follow a different "cultural logic". Acquiring intercultural communication competence when dealing with Germans in Germany means my friends will just have to see the waiter coming, pay their share, and roll with it. On the other hand, the German cannot expect to speak his cultural vocabulary with Spaniards at a Spanish table. The ability to fine-tune one's sensitivity to other cultural "cues" and communicate effectively at both tables is the key to intercultural communication competence.

Enjoying a meal with friends or even business colleagues is a rather pedestrian activity. We all do it, regardless of which culture we do it in. The interaction between diners is a social event that serves to nurture a budding relationship, or to re-affirm the bonds of an existing one. It's a loud conversation of cultural cues that communicates mutual intentions and expectations from a relationship. Without a cultural framework, however, behaviour and communication styles different from our own are simply white noise.

What surprises is not that such crossed cultural signals occur, but that many internationally active companies remain naively unaware of how cultural differences profoundly affect business communication and co-operation. A German acquaintance recently described how his daughter, fresh out of university, was recruited by a world-renowned IT company. She was hardly a year in their employ when she was sent to Japan for an extended stay to carry out a series of projects. Not unexpectedly, having received no advance preparation for the cultural environment in which she would have to carry out her tasks, the project was significantly complicated and delayed by the intense culture shock experienced by the young lady.

When German companies prepare to send an employee on a foreign assignment, emphasis is more likely to be placed first on perfecting technical issues; then perhaps attention is given to "supplementary" skills. Even then, in the fact-oriented German business culture, for example, effective communication skills training tends to stress language competence to support professional competence, know-how, and exchange numerical information. "Soft skills" have their role to play after hours; the primary business goal, however, is to identity the problem, propose an effective solution, and provide an analysis of the quickest, most efficient steps towards that solution. For everything else, it's a matter of "learning by doing".

The only problem with this optimism is that it can be superficial. For one thing, it easily reduces intercultural communication skills to a list of do's and don'ts. Checklists can be helpful tools; however, they are products at best derived from a conceptual understanding of why different cultures communicate and behave the way they do, not ingredients that automatically ensure successful intercultural communication. This is, for example, the qualitative difference between following exclusively someone else's do's/don'ts list and developing the skills to compile one's own. Furthermore, learning by doing may simply mean practising incompetence and not realising it, especially when social etiquette in highly relationship-oriented cultures prohibits faux pas from being pointed out to the offender. Either way, without a conceptual framework for why different cultures (including one's own) think differently about the same things, and how this directly impacts their communicative behaviour with others, even the most exhaustive do's/don'ts lists are ineffective.

To maximise the comfort level of their intercultural moment, be it in a restaurant after hours or in the boardroom, both Miguel Lopez, S.A and Hans Müller GmbH must become more aware of the cultural baggage they bring to either encounter, and how this impacts their behaviour and communication style. Both must be aware of the cultural assumptions and expectations they will inevitably project onto the situation, how great the divide may be between them, and be prepared to deal with the "worst case scenario" where the divide is great.

The Spaniard will have to understand that Spanish and German business cultures find themselves at pretty much two extremes. He should be aware of the fact that business culture for the Spanish develops less from a community of interests than from a community of feelings. At the very least, business is facilitated when combined with good relations. At the very most, business is personal.

Meals, therefore, understandably inhabit a vital function in business life. They are used to nurture personal feeling, to see if the chemistry is "right". Like a Chinese, an Arab or an Italian, eating together is seldom a mere act of taking nourishment or obligatory entertainment arranged for guests. It is a key building block in the foundation of a relationship based on mutual trust. In tricky business situations, each party can trust the other to act honourably and in the interest of both parties despite unfavourable contractual technicalities.

The Spaniard should therefore not only be aware of his own communication style, but also anticipate a different one from his German counterpart, where each behaviour naturally reflects its own values system and priorities. Skilful communication with the German in Germany would, therefore, require him to carefully gage the communication gap between them, and be prepared to engage in a more technical business partnership than he would do back home.

On the other hand, the success of the meal depends equally on how prepared the German has come to the table. Hopefully, he is aware of where the largest gap between German and Spanish cultural priorities exists, and how this can impact their expectations of each other's behaviour. Of course he also understands the necessity of grooming good personal relationships in business, and he is more than ready to participate in the the camaraderie of long conversations and big meals that stretch into the small hours of the night. However, business before pleasure. German business is, above all, first about technical know-how, the facts and figures to back it up, and the competence to implement and maintain it. German business is never as much about the sell as it is about the goods. If the substance isn't there, no amount of "schmoozing" can clinch the deal. It can't be first personal because that would only complicate and compromise the facts. True as this may be on home turf, however, miscommunication is inevitable if the German is unprepared for communicating with partners with quite different expectations.

One of the most noticeable differences in behaviour between the Spanish and Germans that relates to the importance of the meal derives from their different valuing of time. This is seen in the amount of time each is prepared to spend on apparently non-business related activities or topics during business time. How much time is needed to state incontrovertible facts? the German wonders. Too much talk only takes up time, and time is money! For the Spanish, small-talking is not necessarily talking about small things. It functions (as it does for most relationship-oriented cultures) as an indispensable social lubricant for the network of trust and mutual obligations within which negotiations are made, and facts "adjusted" to real conditions.

Time is also stretched out to bridge the space between private and public spheres. Not only the types of questions asked, but the number of questions asked, will vary dramatically, revealing different understandings of, for one thing, discretion. Not surprisingly, small-talk is precisely no more than that in especially the fact-oriented German business culture: small in value and ineffectual where the bottom line of a relationship is drawn at solid quality, reasonable price and sure-binding contractual conditions. However, as long as small-talk continues to be misunderstood as insincere role-playing "blah blah", the German business manager or engineer will be disadvantaged.

In relationship-oriented cultures, such as those in Southern Europe but also in South America, Asia, and Arab cultures, use of time and social etiquette serve precisely to counterbalance the formal tone of the professional business relationship. I recall a classic example told to me by a friend about a Spanish colleague of his who is the long-time representative in Spain of a very large and reputable German manufacturer of curtains. On one occasion the colleague travelled to the German head office for a general meeting of all Europe-wide representatives of the company. At the beginning of the meeting, upon seeing the general director, he warmly congratulated him for the recent birth of his son and presented him with a gift. Unsure how he should react to such an unexpected personal gesture in his business milieu, much embarrassed foot-shovelling ensued before the Big Boss stumbled along and accepted the offering with hesitating thanks and considerable discomfort.

In this case, both parties lacked adequate intercultural communication skills. Despite his good intentions, the Spaniard should have exercised more "discretion" in accordance with the different local cultural environment, and withheld the gift-giving until a more "appropriate" moment. On the other hand, the apparent awkwardness of the general manager in dealing with the situation is surprising given his position and that such typical "exotic" behaviour should not be wholly unexpected from his multi-national staff. An avoidable miscommunication of intent can easily result in, at the very least, mutual stereotyping (the stiff German), and, at the very worst, the seeds of mistrust ("what does he want from me?").

As unlikely as it may sound to Northern European ears, the business meeting in relationship-oriented cultures serves a similar function to that of the meal. It is a social event where one evaluates the mood of the others, senses supporters, tests the waters. Especially for the independent-minded Spaniard who likes to make decisions on his own, the meeting is at best where managers communicate their instructions. Time is spent voicing opinions and ideas, of which one will be chosen by the arbiter. Characteristic of the relationship-oriented impulse, the purpose of the meeting is to obtain agreement of the others with it through talk. Germans who arrive at a meeting with a detailed analysis and fixed agenda expecting to decide on an action plan, allocate responsibilities, and co-ordinate implementations will be very frustrated.

The German businessman or engineer facing the prospect of making a presentation in front of a Spanish audience would also be well advised to double check more than just his facts and figures and language competence. Spanish managers often comment on typically overloaded German presentations or seminars that are much too long for the Spanish attention span anyway. The German, on the other hand, seldom observes that the Spanish audience is not half as interested is the graphics as they are in looking at him as a person! Do they like him? What feeling, or vibe do they get from him? Can they trust him to act in the interest of both sides when the going gets tough despite what the contract stipulates in all clarity? They figure if he has already got into the boardroom, then his products must be good anyway!

The fact of the simple matter is that you have to work hard at making the Spaniard like you, especially in business. If you succeed in this, business will often follow automatically. Without understanding this fundamental difference from Northern European business communication norms, all the practice in the world will just be noise.

Communication is always a two-way street, despite the astounding tendency of many communicators to barrel down the street with a single-minded determination toward their goal, showing little regard for the rest of the traffic in the way. Acquiring intercultural communication competency requires the communicator to be aware of how his own and the other's cultural assumptions directly impact each's communication behaviour. How aware the communicator is of the condition of his road enables him, for example, to anticipate curves and circumvent damaging potholes he may encounter any time along the way. If he doesn't learn to be a more skilful intercultural communicator, despite all the polished grammar and vocabulary in the foreign language, he will still be in for a bumpy ride.

So, next time Miguel Lopez S.A and Hans Müller GmbH meet each other on the global stage their goal should be much more than to just "play along with the game" and "make the best of it". The goal, far beyond the deal itself, should be to acquire a level of intercultural communication competency that enables them to communicate across all cultures skilfully, especially in unpredictable situations when they don't have the benefit of a handy book or checklists. Facts and figures, product quality and technical know-how are only one kind of vocabulary used in our modern global market. Understanding the basic patterns of cultural values different from one's own, and how these values directly impact our communication style is the key to mastering an "intercultural multilingualism".

Alexia Petersen, July 2002

Intercultural Communication Checklists

[Author's note: This text is written from the perspective of German communication behaviour, which is also prevalent in varying degrees in other Northern European cultures. Therefore, depending on where you're from, some of the points made, in particular in the checklists, may not readily apply to your situation.]

The checklists are also available in PDF format, for easy viewing and printing.

The checklists below are meant to guide you to a smoother, more communicative interaction with Spaniards. However, these lists are the products of intercultural communication competency and not an end in itself. Knowing how to communicate effectively with other cultures follows from understanding why they behave the way they do. Our approach is to provide you with a framework of cultural core values which impact behaviour and communication styles in the Spanish culture (and other cultures with similar core concepts) at the national level. This knowledge is the foundation for developing those skills necessary to bridge communication gaps between cultures where the distance between two sets of cultural assumptions is the greatest. Our aim is to enable readers to develop intercultural communication skills to a point where they can eventually create their own checklists. That is why, in addition to the standard Do's, Don'ts and Be Aware lists, and a compilation of small talk topics, we provide a more vital 5th list of guidelines to help readers to actively apply the intercultural communication 'vocabulary'. Against a solid framework of knowledge, this is effective "learning by doing".

Before reading these checklists, make sure you read

Points to avoid

  1. Don't aim to plan everything 100% perfectly. What the Spanish value is how you react when unforeseeable conditions arise. The effort spent on building the personal relationship invests in a mutual trust that safeguards everyone's "face" in tricky situations. Expect delivery dates, schedules, budgets, forecasts to be only approximations and rough guides for action. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? The sign of competent leadership is courage (valiente) and how one responds to the unpredictable.

  2. Don't go into initial meetings with a fixed agenda and points ready to be ticked off. Be prepared to do more socialising during business than you consider "normal" or beneficial. Don't make the mistake of thinking it is all a "waste of time": your body language can break any potential deals!

  3. You don't win points with Spaniards by pursuing a discussion based on who is technically correct and incorrect, or who is at fault and who is not. The quality of the relationship and one's obligations to it are more important.

  4. Avoid talking about business or giving detailed descriptions of your job/current projects, etc., once you and your colleagues have moved out of the business environment. If someone asks, keep it short and sweet. Social occasions are not an extension of the business day. No one is that interested in all the details! Remember: they are more interested in you.

Points to be aware of

  1. In contrast to German meetings, Spanish meetings are often not for decision-making but about exchanging opinions and collecting information, and for strengthening interpersonal relationships. In fact, important decisions can often be made at the casual dinner table.

  2. Be aware of how you express criticisms and complaints or even a strong wish. Remember that everything you say to a person from a relationship-oriented culture is received in an interpersonal context. Criticisms and complaints, even if expressed neutrally for you (e.g. fact-based and technical) can actually sound harsh and cold and give personal offence.

  3. Be aware that if you ever reach a point where you feel the need to qualify your blunt actions or words (e.g. "Please don't take it personally"), you have likely already gone too far and from then on you should focus on damage control.

  4. Note, in contrast to Germans, Spaniards value an openness to risk-taking; courage and risk-taking are valued as leadership qualities. There is a strong temperamental aversion to forecasting and planning, especially to grandiose schemes based on in-depth analyses. This can affect the quality of joint ventures with long-term objectives.

  5. Note that even on formal business occasions manners can be based on an easy and relaxed informality; remember that familiarity and a quality of a relationship based on trust are highly valued. Be circumspect, see what others do!

  6. Be aware of going too far by pursuing arguments or points on purely technical grounds because a) the interpersonal element is valued over the technical truth, and b) a degree of modesty (modesto) is valued over assertiveness.

  7. Be aware that time is less linear and compartmentalised into units (monochronic), but more flexible and overlapping (polychronic) to serve a purpose or relationship.

  8. Be aware that, like the Chinese and Japanese (!), losing and giving "face" is an important value in building interpersonal relationships. Unlike the Asians, however, the Spaniard may react with visible touchiness and sensitivity when they feel their personal dignity and point of honour (pundonor) have been compromised.

Points to do

  1. When making criticisms or expressing personal wishes, use a softer tone than you would in German.

  2. If you are asked personal questions (e.g. family, personal experiences) take that as a cue that these topics are favourable small talk topics.

  3. Be prepared to "small" talk more than you think is necessary. Understand the function that it serves in the culture.

  4. "Business is personal": in Spain, be prepared to work hard for it to be more personal; business will come automatically.

  5. Be prepared to cope with a much higher degree of improvisation compared to what you may expect in Germany. A businessman's or manager's reputation is build on how he acts and reacts under unpredictable circumstances.

  6. Be prepared to be less perfect, but more authentic.

  7. Be prepared to offer to treat your colleagues more often than you would consider necessary in Germany, inside and outside of company time; sometimes you need to let the needs of a relationship cue what you should do, even when the rules say you don't have to.

  8. At least show interest in and appreciation for the personal well-being of those close to Spanish colleagues, and be prepared to receive likewise from them with graciousness. Listen to who your colleagues mention during "small talk" (e.g. family members, mutual acquaintances) and remember to inquire after them next time you meet.

  9. Do try to "feel out" mutual acquaintances and connections with Spanish colleagues; do not be afraid to ask. Expect much time during social occasions to be spent discovering who you know in connection to someone else. Good references from trusted connections speak more for an individual than only technical competence and ability. The best reference you can give about another person is "he's a good friend of mine".

Small Talk Topics

Symbols: (++) very good topic, (+) good topic, (-) avoid topic, (--) bad topic.
  • Family and mutual acquaintances (Much effort is made by Spaniards to establish some form of personal connection through mutual acquaintances. Much time is spent at the beginning of a new relationship feeling out each other's "references". Since in Spain business relationships reflect a greater degree of personal trust and friendship, the trustworthiness of even a friend of a friend can be relied on and transferred through your friend to you, and vice versa. The most reliable reference you can receive about anyone from any contact, therefore, is that "he is a good friend of mine". )
  • Travel, leisure, holidays (Be aware, however, of giving minutely detailed descriptions of your holidays. No one is that interested in a monologue. Make sure you at least ask as many questions as you answer! Keep it anecdotal and positive in tone, and keep in mind to stress common experiences where you can. It strengthens the bond you are aiming to establish with your colleague.)
  • Sport (As in Brazil, football's importance extends beyond sport. In a country divided by regional loyalties, football is relatively neutral ground. Following football and attending major football matches is considered to be almost a social obligation, with most males belonging to a football club. Many larger companies have access to tickets for major events and corporate entertainment can include attending football matches. Even the most disinterested foreign business associate would be well-advised to go along with the show. As with many social events in Spain, participation is usually more important than one's technical interest in an event.)
  • Politics, current events and scandals
  • Wine and food
  • Job or profession (As Spanish social events provide the time and place to cultivate personal relationships, jobs or details of one's profession are not immediately the first topics of conversation. If asked at all, answers are kept general and short. Talking shop belongs at the office!)
  • Money (Salary, cost of personal possessions)
  • Problems and difficulties (Avoid focussing on problems and complaints in explicit detail and dwelling on then too long. The German habit of first detailing what is wrong, not possible, or unfavourable, be it regarding the weather or in response to a greeting, often provokes uncertainty in members of relationship-oriented cultures. This leaves the other not knowing how to react to what sounds like bad news. In other, highly group-oriented cultures that prioritise group harmony, this can even cause considerable psychological stress. To yet other cultures that tend to stress the positive or doable, this may sound like negativism and complaining, and in turn boring or inappropriate.)

Becoming interculturally literate

  1. Can you identify other cultures that may exhibit similar behaviour or communication style as the Spanish, though for (slightly) different reasons at the core level of values?

  2. Can you imagine other situations where the Spanish may take what is said or done as a serious personal insult, but you consider normal? How do you think they will react?

  3. What other aspects of Spanish communication style and behaviour have you had experience with? What cultural values do you think are at the core?

  4. What are the German values of the same concepts, and how do they manifest themselves in German communication style and behaviour?

  5. Isolate the areas of greatest difference between the German and Spanish values systems and predict the most likely situations of misunderstandings.

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