Our experiences with cross-cultural communication: “In Silicon Valley ambition is not a dirty word”
When working in a global commercial environment, awareness and knowledge of the impact of cultural differences is one of the keys to international business success. Working at Clifford Chance means working in an international environment, both internally (working in multi-cultural teams) and externally (international clients and cross-border transactions). Working with people from other cultures brings both massive challenges and massive rewards and requires certain competencies and cultural sensitivity. In this contribution a number of Clifford Chance people share their experiences with working in a culturally diverse environment.
Jeroen Ouwehand, managing partner and head of the Amsterdam Litigation and Dispute Resolution practice as well as the L&DR Practice for Continental Europe
At Clifford Chance, I deal with cultural differences on a daily basis, including within our Amsterdam office where besides Dutch lawyers, we also have Canadian, British, South African and Bosnian colleagues. As leader of our European Litigation practice I have given several presentations to my colleagues throughout Europe on this topic, for which I made grateful use of the work of both Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede. It is easy to forget that a colleague, client or counterparty from another culture often operates from a completely different frame of reference and with different expectations of communication. Not only does the Dutch ‘direct’ way of communicating not always work, hierarchical relationships are also evaluated in a different way. When an advice or pleading goes to, for example, a party in France I may well ask a French colleague to read over it not from the legal perspective, but rather from a cultural perspective; this really adds value. In my opinion, cultural differences make the work more challenging but also much more interesting. Maybe being half Dutch/half British helps a little…
Mark-Jan Arends, partner and head of the Notarial practice (has worked on a number of significant technology transactions during his time as foreign corporate lawyer in San Francisco, USA)
During my time as corporate lawyer in Silicon Valley, I remembered two themes: ‘success by failure’ and ‘don’t dress to impress’. Silicon Valley means startups and startups means the principle of ‘success by failure’. Ambition is not a dirty word and is spoken aloud; instead it shows the eagerness of thinking big. Start-ups are often wildly clever nerds from Stanford with a good idea. The Dutch principle ‘steek je hoofd niet boven het maaiveld uit’ should definitely be left aside when dealing with the West Coast. Dealing with clients and companies in the West Coast is very informal and so is the dress code. A neat pants and shirt ditto suffice for a meeting. No one is wearing a suit, let alone a tie. I was wearing a tie once, when my own client asked me if I had to give a presentation for president Obama…
Moussa Louizi, (seconded Amsterdam) associate in the Capital Markets practice of Clifford Chance Dubai
Despite Dubai’s ever changing skyline and young ‘age’ as a metropolis, the old Arabian customs and manners are also prevalent in business life. There are differences that can be found in the small details. Not only when welcoming someone, but in fact everything you do here you do with your right hand; from handing over a business card to receiving a refreshment from someone. Using your ‘unclean’ left hand is perceived as insulting, as is showing your shoe sole. In the Netherlands we often tend to do business in a very direct way. Dubai is different. Recently I had a signing with a small group of Kuwaiti and Saudi clients that took many hours. Not just because it is required by law that an adult Muslim man is present as a witness at the signing of all Saudi documents, but especially because of all the courtesies during the signing. Demanding as they were on content during the transaction, they remained extremely polite in their communications. One always enjoys a couple of refreshments together with the host before doing business… Yes, even at a signing.
Amin Tamaddoni, associate in the Banking & Finance practice
Working as a Finance lawyer for an international law firm not only provides you with the opportunity to work on interesting and high level transactions, but it also gives you the chance to work with colleagues from different national and cultural backgrounds. In almost all matters we also work closely with colleagues located in other offices all over the world. It is important to know and accept that standards, values and customs are different in every country. I have both Dutch and Iranian nationality. This has given me the privilege to grow up in a multicultural and international environment. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Iran on behalf of Clifford Chance as part of a fact finding mission organised by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. During this trip I more than once had to explain the concept of Iranian taroof to the Dutch participants. It is a tricky phenomenon to fully comprehend as an outsider, but it is basically denying your own will to please your counterpart. What makes it more complicated is the fact that sometimes it is hard to tell if it is genuine or not. Sometimes shopkeepers don’t accept your money as taroof. After offering the money for the fifth time they finally accept. Obviously it is needless to say that taroof could lead to awkward situations as well, for example if the customer decides to just walk out of the store without paying.