The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 18 October 2011



Tomalin, B. (2011), "The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 19 No. 7.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them

Article Type: Suggested readings From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 19, Issue 7

Barry Tomalin and Mike Nicks,Thorogood Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 9781854186850

The integrating concept in The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them is “cultural style”, the mixture of variables that influences how we see people from other countries and how well we relate to them.

Barry Tomalin and Mike Nicks highlight the ingredients of culture as attitudes and values, cultural knowledge and behavior. They also distinguish national, regional, company and, curiously, individual culture – which they assert consists of one’s ethnic background, religion, generation and gender.

How does a business traveler “unlock” another culture? The authors urge the reader to avoid stereotypes and generalizations.

The best aspects of the book are the simple guidelines offered in the first few chapters. Tomalin and Nicks suggest that trust is built through rapport (building good relations) and credibility (matching communication styles). To build rapport and credibility, they encourage showing interest by gathering information about the culture, understanding values and attitudes and understanding business behavior.

Their six rules for finding out what is going on in a culture are clear and practical: do not assume, be quiet, look, listen, feel and ask questions. Further, to test whether a problem exists in dealing with a person from another culture, they recommend three questions: is it personal, is it professional, or is it cultural? To facilitate understanding and resolution, the authors suggest recognizing that you have a cultural communication problem, analyzing the problem, deciding what to do, acting and then reviewing the outcome.

The authors postulate that the characteristics of intercultural sensitivity are tolerance of ambiguity, behavioral flexibility, communicative awareness, knowledge discovery, respect for otherness and empathy. Another good insight is the need to transform an “ethno-centric” viewpoint to an “ethno-relative” one. The authors highlight the stages in such an evolution from denial, defence, minimization, acceptance, adaptation through to integration.

The main device employed to help business people to unlock other cultures is a cultural profile. This is a list of ten aspects: communication style (direct or indirect); working style (formal or informal); discussion style (fast or slow); business attitude (progressive or traditional); leadership style (flat or vertical); business relationship (relationship-focused or task-focused); decision-making style (individualistic or collective); basis for decision making (facts or instincts); attitude to time (scheduled or flexible); and work-life balance (live to work or work to live).

The authors present cultural profiles of 16 key markets – Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, the Gulf, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Spain, the UK and the USA. The fact files on each of these countries highlight the size of the country, its population, capital city, ethnic make-up, the economic base, gross domestic product per head, language/s spoken, religion, currency, climate and information about whether visas are required. The sub-headings and tables within each market are succinct and memorable. For example, one way of succeeding in the UK is arriving at meetings punctually, while a way of failing is to be patronizing towards women.

I liked the many examples of their conversation topics while doing business overseas and their “ice-makers” versus “ice-breakers”. For example, an ice-breaker in China is talking about the fact the some 40 million people world-wide are learning Mandarin, while an ice-maker is talking about your feelings on China’s approach to Tibet.

For all its practical utility, there are some puzzling aspects to the book. First, it is difficult to see the link between the introductory models of culture and the main device, the “cultural profile” for the 16 countries selected.

Secondly, there is no clear basis in research for the various cultural profiles.

Thirdly, the target readership for the book is clearly business travelers and business negotiators, but there seems to be little for those who deal with governments or not-for-profit organizations.

Reviewed by Greg M. Latemore, UQ Business School, the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and Latemore & Associates Pty. Ltd, Brisbane, Australia.

A longer version of this review was originally published in Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 32 No. 3, 2011.

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