The art of drinking vodka

The owner of a company, Mr. Schmidt, was very satisfied with the course of the business dinner. The conclusion of the contract was as good as perfect, his new partners obviously enjoyed themselves very much, everything was perfect. Perhaps he should not have drunk so much, he was no longer in command of his tongue and legs, but it had simply been impossible to say “niet”.

Mr. Schmidt’s disappointment was all the greater when the Russians completely changed their tactics the next day and suddenly refused to sign the contract. His dream of “conquering” the huge Russian market collapsed. “These Russians”, the unfortunate businessman complained later everywhere, “it is well known that they can only drink! Never do business with Russia again!” His listeners nodded sympathetically. Everyone had a similar story that proved that you have to be crazy to do business with Russians. Because they’re all unreliable and in the Mafia anyway.

Mr. Schmidt’s big deal could easily have come true if he had only adapted to the culture of his new business associates. His knowledge of “Mother Russia” was limited to centuries-old clichés, which he, however, considered to be the truth. As a result, it was not at all clear to him that, from a Russian point of view, he had behaved very badly on the evening described (couldn’t hold his liquor, wasn’t able to propose even one good toast, etc.) which led the Russians to question his authority and indeed even his integrity. He was finished as a reliable partner for them..

Stereotypical ideas about Russia

It’s not just the hero of our tale that has these stereotyped ideas about Russians and Russia; many other international businessmen have rather fuzzy conceptions about Russians and Russia. The well-known toast “Na zdorowje!”, for instance, which foreigners often think is the epitome of Russian vodka madness, actually comes from the Polish language. And the custom of throwing glasses over one’s shoulder has nothing to do with Russian reality any more than bears running wild on the streets of Moscow or the supposed freezing cold even in the summer. The head of the representative office of a German company once complained to me that even after half a year of work in Moscow, nobody had invited him to the allegedly obligatory banya (Russian sauna). “I thought it was part of doing business here,” he remarked.

Today’s world of unlimited communication and the Internet has made things more transparent, but old clichés and prejudices still haven’t disappeared. They seem to have retained an enormous hold in people’s perception of reality and are even capable of influencing it. The danger is that they’re so easy to believe. It’s easy to just label others: “Germans are boring”, “Russians drink vodka”, “French people are charming”, etc. Even face-to-face meetings do not seem to be able to refute the stereotypes. Mr. Schmidt’s Russian associates, for instance, thought that he was a cheapskate even after the sumptuous food he had served. “He can’t even celebrate! Has no guts! The typical German” was their conclusion. Both sides had met with the best of intentions and parted as almost enemies, and each felt even firmer vindicated in their preconceptions.

Successful communication

The be-all and end-all of a good business relationship is successful communication. And that does not only depend on a common language. Non-verbal communication and knowledge of cultural customs are at least as important. Communication with foreign employees is often difficult, because their values and norms, their ideas about time, distance, proximity, hierarchy, their behavior and manners are different.

For instance, it is generally difficult for Russian employees to accept the collegial management style of their German bosses because they come from an authoritarian society in which the motto is ” If you are the boss – I am the idiot. If I am the boss – you are the idiot”. Confusion is inevitable. “I’m required to show initiative and discuss things with my boss. How can I do that when we were always told ‘Initiative is an offence’? Moreover, our German superior never clearly says what he expects from me,” reports Tatjana, employee of a German branch office in Moscow. Her boss, on the other hand, probably doesn’t know that he is confusing Tatjana with his leadership style.

And so it becomes clear that although globalization has become a buzzword and companies in today’s world of blurred borders need to meet completely new requirements, cross-cultural knowledge often falls by the wayside.

Dr. Daria Boll-Palievskaya

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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