Culture and Diversity in Business

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Given that we live in a globalizing world, cultural differences will collide more frequently. I believe that a study in cultural diversity is relevant because more businesses are entering the global market. And for this reason, “it is vital for businesses to understand that cultural differences can affect how they perform in the local markets they are targeting” (Day Translations, 2018).

In 1998, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turneropbouwen published their book ‘Riding The Waves Of Culture’. It aims to dispel the idea that there would only be one way to manage cultural differences in business negotiations. The book claims that one should initially discover their own culture in relation to others, especially before doing business with other cultures. In my opinion, the book specifically divides seven aspects of cultural differences.



Upon reading about these cultural contrasts, I realized how important these are and will become as our world globalizes. Having a greater understanding of culture and knowing how to prepare for cultural differences in business negotiations I believe to be absolutely crucial.


After reading the book, the following five aspects fascinated me most:


Relationships and rules (universalist versus particularist)


Simply valuing sticking to the rules over one’s relationships or visa versa. “A universalist culture or behavior tends to be abstract. Try crossing the street when the light is red in a very rule-based society like Switzerland or Germany. Even if there is no traffic, you will still be frowned at” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 31). Reversely, the particularist would absolutely value a relationship over rules, such as traffic lights. “Particularist judgments focus on the exceptional nature of present circumstances. This person is not “a citizen” but my friend, brother, husband, child or person of unique importance to me, with special claims on my love or my hatred” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 31). And therefore, a particularist person would be of the opinion that exceptions and deviations should be made, regardless of the rules, in order to sustain, protect or discount a particular person.


In situations between two cultures where these two distinctly different dimensions are dominant, I believe societies will tend to think each other corrupt. For instance, the universalist would say that “they cannot be trusted because they will always help their friends” whereas a Particularist person would say “don’t trust them because they will not even help a friend”. Business negotiation is doomed to end in disaster if one does not prepare for these cultural contrasts.


The group and the individual (individualism versus communitarianism)


Individualism would be a person whose prime orientation is to the self, a group-oriented or communitarianism person is primarily focussed on common objectives. Individualism is often linked to modern society whereas communitarianism is linked to traditional societies. In promoting people, we particularly see the difference between these two cultural aspects. In individualism, one would promote employees based on the most recent achievements and pay-for-performance sounds therefore like a sensible rewarding system. 


Communitarianism would not use the pay-for-performance system because doing a good job is seen as a team effort. Experienced and older people should be promoted before younger and recently successful staff members are. The pay-for-performance system will not likely be accepted in the communitarianism culture because individuals would no longer focus on common objectives.



In the case of a defect being discovered during installation caused by one member of the installation team. Communitarianism cultures such as Indonesia and Italy one will likely think “encourage individuals to work for consensus in the interest of the group” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 58). Therefore it was the group’s collective responsibility, not just the one person making the mistake. Individualist cultures like Russia or Romania would likely think “encourage individual freedom and responsibility” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 58). The responsibility in their way of thinking falls to the individual.



How far we get Involved (specific versus diffuse)


A specific culture engages with others in specific areas of life and single levels of personality. As opposed to a specific culture will people in a diffuse culture engage in multiple areas of their lives and at several levels of personality at the same time.

How far we get involved is about the definition of personal space, it is best explained by looking at Lewin’s circles.

Figure 1: Specific Versus Diffuse Circles

Figure 1 Lewin’s circles (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 82 Figure 7.1)

Each circle represents a particular culture. The black parts are private space and white is public space. The U-type would represent the specific culture with a lot of public space. This could be an American, “American’s personalities are often considered very friendly and accessible, the reason for this is that being admitted into one public layer is not a massive commitment” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 82). The relationship only serves specific purposes, knowing each other for work would be an example.


The G-type represents a diffuse culture such as Germany. They prefer a lot of personal space, and if a relationship is forged, it often leads to close and personal friendships. I think that this is why Germans may be thought of by Americans as remote and hard to get to know. Reversely, I believe Germans may consider Americans cheerful, garrulous and yet superficial, allowing everyone in their personal space.


Finally, the below-presented figure 2 shows that diffuse cultures are high context and specific cultures low context. “Context in this situation has to do with how much you have to know before effective communication can occur; how shared knowledge is taken for granted by those conversating; how much reference there is to the tacit common ground”(Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 90). Low context cultures like the Netherlands and the USA generally believe everyone should have a say in rule-making. In my opinion, they are more adaptable and flexible. A high context culture like Japan is subtle and heavy, therefore I think it is hard for Westerners to feel fully accepted unless they have been entirely absorbed in the culture.


I think that if business negotiation between these different cultures is not properly prepared, a potential problem occurs. One party wanting to talk about the main problem, topic or objective while the other party first wants to establish common ground and build relationships.


Figure 2: Diffuse Versus Specific Problem Solving


How we accord status (achievement versus ascription)


Why is someone given a higher status? According to Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, there are two approaches to status. Achieved status is applied in cultures where status is based on what someone has done. Ascriptive status is relevant in cultures where status is based on ones being (age, gender, social connections, educations, and profession).



I see this as the main reason why it will be more effective to send a senior business negotiator into a meeting with an ascriptive party. Reversely for negotiating with an achievement-oriented party, bringing along strong data-scientists or other personnel with extraordinary operable skills will probably be more effective.


How we manage time (sequential versus synchronic)


Reading the book “Riding The Waves Of Culture” I realized that the aspect of time may just be the most important one when it comes to cultural differences. There are two main perspectives on managing time itself. “Sequential, which is a series of passing events, or synchronic, with past, present, and future all interrelated so that ideas about the future and memories of the past both shape present action” (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997, p. 120). I see doing one thing at a time, and logic, efficiency and speed being the focus of one’s business as expressions of the sequential time perception.



In synchronic cultures, since past, present, and future are interrelated, people do multiple things at a time. Also, relationships and effectiveness are the main focus of business negotiation.



Below in figure 3 for several the future, present, and past circles for several cultures are presented. The size of a circle shows the importance of it for any particular culture. The more intertwined the circles are, the more synchronic the culture manages time.


Figure 3: Managing Time (Future, Present, Past)

This is the end of this blog regarding cultural differences in business. It focussed a lot on the book “Riding The Waves Of Culture” as I personally am quite a fan of their approach.


If you are deeply interested in this type of cultural differences in business situations like me, please read the book yourself. It is distributed both online as well as in selected libraries and bookshops. The properly profound and thorough analysis of these differences described in the book goes into too much depth for this already extensive blog.



– Website:
– Book: Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1997). Riding The Waves Of Culture. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing

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