Are we one big web family? Think again.

baltic 2011 503

By Rogier Noort, {grow} Community Member

Some time ago, my wife and I decided we wanted to grow our own food. I know, food? A different kind of {grow}! Bear with me — there is a moral to this story!

To get a nice plot of land, we had to look past our homeland of The Netherlands (where the price of land is at such a premium) to just a few miles across the border into Belgium. In fact, we moved a mere 188 miles from our previous home, not really an impressive distance by U.S. standards.

I also had to get a new job in my newly-adopted country and found one in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Not a bad looking city with a few nice quirks. One of the weirder quirks is that this region has three governments; a Regional, French-speaking and a Dutch-speaking government. Under that structure, there are 19 communes (each with its own mayor and full counsel) and on top of that the federal Belgium government and all that contained in a puny 62 square miles.

Culture shock 

I’m Dutch, traveled the world, experienced many different cultures, and have an open mind. So I consider myself a wee bit enlightened. However, I was completely caught off guard by the differences in culture I faced when starting my new job in this new country — only 57 miles from the Dutch border!

Just one example; My first day at the office.

The men shook my hand; the women gave me a peck on the cheek. Now, this made me feel welcome, but this does not happen in my homeland. In Holland, we come in, wave good morning, sit down, shut up and do our work. And I was surprised when the kisses happened again on the second day.

It took me awhile to learn how to be friendly in the morning, to look your coworker in the eye. But now, this is a great way to start the day!

In the south of Belgium where I live, just 95 miles away, the men kiss too, still another surprise.

I experienced many other cultural subtleties, to. Some took me a year to figure out. The problem is, nobody will explain these to you, and some will only correct you if you break a “rule” … maybe. If you are working with people in a different country, they expect you to know their rules and abide by them … and rightfully so.

So, what’s the point of this?

We like to the think of the social web as one big community but it’s certainly not. We’re still local — very local — in our customs, habits and language.

Just because you are a “world citizen,” never assume people are just like you or that people will adapt to you. I experienced culture shock when I moved a short distance from my home.  Just imagine the differences when working abroad, on another hemisphere. Even if you are immersed in the culture, it may take you years to understand a people. and in some cases, the wrong move can even be an insult.

We have such an amazing opportunity to meet and work with people from all over the world on the web. When starting a new assignment, mind how big the differences can be. Be humble, pay attention to speech and behavior, especially the subtleties. Ask, discretely, if you are in doubt.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn about the new worlds out there. People will generally be honored that you are interested.

And if you ever have a gig working in another country, read up on the cultural differences beforehand! Connect with a local, and if you are ever in Belgium or Holland, please contact me so I can help you feel welcome!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my story. Do you have a story of a new culture to share?

As a social entrepreneur in the BeNeLux my focus lies on a holistic approach for helping companies mature their social media exploits, externally and/or internally. Find me on Twitter (@rogiernoort), LinkedIn (be.linkedin.com/in/rogiernoort/) or on my blog, where I write about social business in Western Europe.

Illustration: Photo from Talinn, Estonia Mark Schaefer took in 2012

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  • MaureenMonte

    Hello Rogier, you look very Dutch (I am with IBM and work with lots of Dutch people which I enjoy immensely – so that is a compliment). 🙂 I really enjoyed your GROW post.

    I worked in Paris for a while, for IBM but not at IBM. I was embedded in the customer’s site, and never once met another IBM employee. Anyhow, I was “dropped in” to the culture and also had much to learn very quickly. Plus I did not speak French (I’m a typical American in that sense, unfortunately.) I had similar experiences, either shaking hands every day that you start work, and/or a kiss on both sides of the cheek if you “become friends.” I was naturally perceived as a bit of an opponent because I was there to help them understand how to improve quality and the user experience. My big “aha” was that “No!” at the end of a discussion did not mean that we would would not do what was being discussed. In Paris, “No!” from my french boss to me, an outsider and an American, meant, “If I agree then I have to admit that you were right.” “No” was a face-saving move. “No” today became “yes!” tomorrow. So I learned not to fight to the death for something. Given enough time, reason would prevail, and we’d do the right thing. But I was nearly thrown out and sent home the very first day, when an unreasonable choice was being made, and I was prepared for war. 🙂 I had a blast, and would love to live in Europe again. Look forward to following you on twitter and subscribing to your blog.

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Maureen (that sure sounds like Dutch name), thank you for your story. I can imagine there are many, many more stories out there where cultures clash. It’s often in those details where things can go wrong.., or right.

    Thanks for the comment and the follow.., and, of course, when ever you visit my neck of the woods.., be sure to drop a line 🙂

  • Claudia Licher

    Hi Rogier,
    I haven’t had any big surprises, but then again I’ve only stayed abroad temporarily. It actually helped me if I had to to speak another language because it made me anticipate other differences. My tips would be:
    1) don’t assume you know how things work.
    2) accept that you will mess up at some point… hopefully not too badly!

  • MaureenMonte

    You are funny! It’s good to know that my name will open doors in places other than Ireland! 🙂 I shall drop you a line when I”m in you neck of the woods, my friend. Onward! Maureen

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Claudia, #1 is very important, I dare say that assuming you know everything goes hand in hand with hubris. It hardly ever ends well. Those who get past #1 will have less trouble with #2.

    Thanks for the great additions.

  • Hi Rogier,

    This happens in the states too. Having lived in gloomy and somewhat soft-spoken Seattle for many years, where everybody obeys the rules and no one Jaywalks … I always find it interesting to come to NYC. Everyone jaywalks, cabbies try to run over pedestrians and complete strangers might even talk to you. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the picture 😉

    I would like to find out what to expect in Barcelona. My wife keeps telling me we need to go there, and stay! … when the kids get older of course.

  • This is so great! I can really appreciate this since I moved from Miami to Colorado two years ago and felt a huge cultural shift… I know! I was still in the States… how was this possible!?

    Well, everyone kisses in Miami (besides a long list of other things we do that are not typical American). A kiss for hello and a kiss for goodbye. In Colorado I was not greeted with any such love, hardly eye contact until I initiated the ‘Hi I’m Tiana, why does no one talk here?’

    Then I moved from Colorado to Italy, where it was back to kissing, but only hello, not goodbye… and two kisses not one! I’ve been in Florence for a year now and luckily my Miami up bringing can help me understand the culture a bit more than if I was some middle white bread American, but there is still is a lot to learn. Plus, Florence is different from other Italian cities, so it’s been a double whammy!

    I can’t even keep up with the Italian government, Belgium would have my head spinning.

  • Hi Rogier, IMO, this is probably the most important post every published on “Grow” (sorry Mark). It speaks to so many issues on so many levels, not the least of which is globalization and its impact on social marketing. Understanding and appealing to your “buyer” is the single most critical thing anyone can do. Whether it’s successfully working with a “foreign” culture or trying to promote anything to anyone. Just because a “tactic” works for one market, doesn’t mean it will work for all. I personally love the quote “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do” (http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/When+in+Rome).

    Thanks for raising this discussion.

  • RogierNoort

    Barcelona is a great and beautiful city (check out Gaudi). People are very laid back, Mediterranean style. You should go, given the chance.

    Seattle – New York is quite the difference, a lot of distance too.. I’d be in the middle of Kazakhstan if I drove that far east, talk about culture clashing…

    Thanks for the comment, Craig.

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Tania.., in Holland dialects can change from one town to the next, and we’re talking about miles, not days. With the size and heritage of the US, you can go on a great culture binge and never leave your country. It is one of the bigger plusses of the US (we have to deal with culture AND language).

    Thanks for the comment.

    p.s. I try to ignore Belgian politics, trying to understand it is futile.

  • Yes, I don’t bother with Italian politics. Other ‘expats’ moan all day, but it doesn’t get them anywhere fast! I rather talk about food and wine. 🙂

  • RogierNoort

    Steve.., you just made my week! Thanks! I’m humbled.

    Mark wrote about this issue too. How it can be difficult to cater to all and how an “American” attitude can hinder when you want to reach a European audience. We are not the same, not by a long shot.

    Social Media/Marketing/Business requires us more and more to be aware of the subtleties.., ain’t it fun?

    Thanks for the comment Steve.., and thank you for the compliment, it’s much appreciated.

  • RogierNoort

    That’s more productive.., and much, much more satisfying.

  • Monica MillerRodgers

    Hi Rogier. I really enjoyed your post. I’m an American currently living in Europe (just visited The Netherlands for the first time two weeks ago) with a past stint in South America and a future move to China. As I’m traveling, I’ve been interviewing public relations professionals about the differences in the practice from the U.S. to other countries. It’s eye-opening to learn about the all the cultural differences, small and large, from first-hand experience and the interviews. In my master’s program, I’m also concentrating on multicultural communications. There is so much in this field to learn. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Monica.., that is a brilliant idea, asking PR professionals. Nice travelling, by the way. I have a Chinese friend, if ever I get to go, I’ll ask him what not to do 🙂
    Thanks for the comment, good luck with travelling and your master.

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