Understanding European Mentalities

iphone_20110123 069I am a native Dutch and was raised in the nice old university town of Leiden, about 40 kilometers south of Amsterdam. The Dutch are confident and pragmatic business people with a long trade tradition. The Dutch East India Company which has been established in 1602 was, for two centuries, the largest and most powerful trade organization in the world. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that the Dutch invented the multi-national. True to the spirit of their forefathers Dutch from child age on are good communicators and negotiators. Even today, although a very small country in size, the Netherlands is home to international corporations like Philips, Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell.

So when I took off into the world in my early twenties I was very surprised to learn that the Dutch concept of how business is done and how people communicate differed a lot from how other European nationalities do it.

In the UK for example the first things that I noticed was that people were very polite. Well, I did not have difficulties understanding the language – Dutch children learn English at the age of six. But there were other, more severe misunderstandings. Being accustomed to a rather blunt and direct conversation style it took me a long time to realize that when people said something like “Perhaps you would think about…” that did not mean that I was free to consider this idea. I soon found out that what sounded like a polite suggestion was rather an order(!) and that people expected me to follow it or I be better prepared to justify myself.

Still, I consider the UK and also the Nordics as very similar to the Dutch style of doing business. We usually have a good common understanding right from the start. When you do business in the Nordic countries you will meet informal, friendly people. In the Nordics hierarchies, just like in the Netherlands, are almost non-existent. Regardless of age, social class and sex, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Danes use the informal version of “you”  when speaking to a single person. There is also a polite form to address a person but this is not in use any more in business.

Still they may seem a bit reserved and rigid to start with. They have a tendency to speak only when they have something important to contribute and also they keep their private lives separate from their working lives. Of course this has an effect on what is considered appropriate topics of discussion and, in hindsight, there have certainly been many occasions where I have too generously shared details of my family life or my political beliefs.

Everything takes on a radically different appearance when it comes to Germany and the German speaking countries Austria and Switzerland (DACH) which are regarded as the “engine of Europe. Germans are increasingly trying to show the world a friendly, relaxed and welcoming face (and of course they are friendly, nobody would deny that!). But be careful! In business, formality and seriousness rule the day. In German-speaking countries performance, skill, achievement and workmanship are highly valued. At the office, punctuality like a swiss watch is a must and only the bosses are allowed to be late. As a foreigner you should rather stick to the formal “Sie” instead of “you” when you are being introduced to somebody, even if this person is a 18 year old trainee or somebody exactly your age. Do not expect that you will soon be communicating more informally. Even after years of doing business together you may be welcomed with a formal handshake and being addressed as “Mr. Wansink” instead of “Jan”. Business relations are remarkably stable, especially with the German SME´s (German “Mittelstand”). The term SME is a bit misleading: Many of these, e.g. companies like Kärcher, Henkel, Hugo Boss, Stihl, Bosch are mighty worldwide operating family owned enterprises and the backbone of the German economy.

When Americans consider expanding their businesses to Europe they should clearly be prepared that the European market is not as homogenous as the American market. In theory everything is aligned: Employees as well as goods can move freely across Europe, most countries have the Euro as a common currency, there is a European parliament. Still, Europe consists of more then 40 countries and they all have their economic and cultural legacies which makes it very difficult to approach it with a “one size fits all” concept. That in itself is a barrier to building a pan European venture.

Have a good start in Europe!

Jan Wansink

CEO Conquering Europe