Quick! Grab that piece of paper in front of you!

Draw three circles, along the lines of a Venn diagram.

One circle represents the past; one represents the present; and one represents the future. Your three circles should show the relationship between past, present, and future.

People from different cultures tend to draw those circles very differently, and I’ll explain your cultural bias after the jump.

Why am I writing about this? Because my corporate law department recently held its global law conference, at which all of our lawyers from around the world gathered in one place for two days of meetings. (February in Chicago! Who could resist?) We’re quite an international group, and we invited a speaker (from one of our businesses, which consults on talent management issues) to talk to us about working on cross-cultural teams.

This is just the sort of touchy-feely stuff that I typically can’t bear, but this guy was actually pretty interesting. He both revealed the cultural biases of people within our group and gave some suggestions about how to work together more effectively in the future.

I’ve now stalled for long enough. If you’ve drawn your three circles representing past, present, and future, you’re allowed to click through the jump and learn about your cultural prejudices….

Most Americans draw three circles from left to right, slightly overlapping, and becoming larger as you move to the right. Thus, the smallest circle is on the left and represents the past; the medium-sized circle is in the middle and represents the present; and the largest circle is on the right and represents the future.

If you’re French, it’s likely that you also drew three overlapping circles, but in the reverse order: The largest circle is on the left and represents the past; the medium-sized circle is in the middle and represents the present; and the smallest circle is on the right and represents the future.

Why?

It’s all about national perception. In 1996, Bill Clinton campaigned for the presidency of the U.S. on a promise to “build a bridge to the 21st century.” But French leaders, from Napoleon to de Gaulle to Sarkozy, have all promised to restore France to its former glory. In some countries, the future looms large; in other countries, it’s the past.

If you’re Indian, then your three circles were probably all the same size.

If you’re Japanese, there’s a one-in-three chance that you drew your three circles representing past, present, and future directly on top of each other: You drew three concentric circles of precisely the same size, overlapping entirely. Either that’s a very eastern concept of time or lots of Japanese are fans of T.S. Eliot.

These types of cultural biases affect the way people negotiate and how they interact with each other. Americans, for example, rank highest in the world on the spectrum of “individualism” to “collectivism.” Americans thus generally believe that individuals are meant to take care of themselves and their immediate families only; otherwise, it’s each man for himself.

At the other end of the scale is Guatemala, where individuals expect their distant relatives or members of other groups to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

I must say that I felt very American as I went through these exercises, typically reflecting my deeply ingrained cultural biases.

(Over dinner, this almost made trouble for me. One of my South African colleagues said, “The other weird things about Americans is that they believe so strongly that they live in the best country on earth. I don’t understand where all that patriotism comes from. Why do Americans think they live in the best country on earth?”

I bit my tongue, overcoming the almost irresistible American urge to say, “Because we do.”)

The speaker shared a few practical ideas from his experience advising companies about how to address cultural variances. For example, if you’re setting up the Paris office of an American company and need a dozen French employees who will blend into an American culture, that poses no problem: Find a few French people who grew up in the United States, or went to school there, or have worked for years at American companies. Those people will feel right at home in your American-centric institution.

On the other hand, if you need to hire 4,000 Indian employees who all live within an hour’s commute of Bangalore, you’re facing a very different problem. You won’t find 4,000 American-thinking Indians in a small geographic area, so you’ll have to adjust your American company to accommodate its new Bangalore branch.

I had three reactions as I participated in our hour-long session about cultural differences: First, the speaker would be a good fit at the plenary session of many Biglaw firms’ annual partners’ meetings, where the organizers struggle to find topics (other than the firm’s financial results) that would interest everyone in the room. Second, I was surprised to learn that cultural differences have been quantified and studied as rigorously as they apparently have been. Finally, I was convinced that there are times when you and someone from another country will see an issue entirely differently, and speaking forthrightly about cultural differences might help you to work together more effectively.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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