An Evening in Spain

After I had successfully established inhouse cross-cultural trainings at work, some of our European colleagues from international assignment departments were interested in adopting my model. In those cases, I adapted my training presentation to the respective country, checked it with my European colleague and then went to the country to discuss the training with my colleague there and do the first training in co-training with her or him.

It was always fun to do this. The fact that my model was of interest to other countries was of course very rewarding. Traveling and seeing new locations was interesting and the colleagues I worked with were all very nice. Usually, we went out in the evening after work and that was enjoyable.

The time I went to Spain was also a good learning experience for me. I already knew and liked my Spanish colleague, Laura, but I didn’t yet know how our cultural backgrounds would influence our working together.

Do I even need to mention that, in the tradition of uncertainty avoidance, I went to Spain armed with print-outs of maps, directions and phone numbers? (That was in the olden days before smartphones with map and direction apps). I hate to admit that I managed to get lost nevertheless.

Anyway, finally I did arrive at the Spanish office. Laura had already reserved a meeting room. I had my presentation printouts with me and had planned in 1 1/2 – 2 hours of going through the presentation and discussing the co-training.

It took a bit longer.

Of course I knew that the Spanish are more polychronic than Germans. That’s why I planned in an extra 30 minutes. (Can you tell that I was still rather at the beginning of my intercultural path?). We started our meeting by chatting about my journey, about Laura’s latest vacation and about this and that. I think we didn’t even look at the printout for the first hour. Laura received several phone calls in between. She kept apologizing for taking them and also kept saying that she realized I probably wanted to get to work instead of chatting. Well, I could tell her honestly that it was no problem. Yes, when the first half hour had passed without us starting our work I had gotten a tiny bit nervous, but then I realized something: I didn’t have any appointments, didn’t have to be anywhere and had all the time in the world. Besides, it was fun chatting and catching up.

I think it eventually took us about 3 or 3 1/2 hours to get through the presentation. We looked at some slides, then got into chatting or Laura took another phone call. Then we’d do some more slides. I realized that Laura was already working more monochronically than she would have done with another Spaniard, whereas I learned to adapt a bit to polychronism. The meeting took much longer than it would have done with a German, but it was also much more fun than a pure work meeting. It would probably have been different if I hadn’t liked the person I was working with, but as it was, I did like her and enjoyed this (for me) new approach. Through our chat during and after the meeting, I also learned far more about Spanish culture and behavioural patterns than I would ever have learned from books.

During the training on the next day we already used this story of a Spaniard and a German working together by adapting respective behaviours. Every since, I have often told this anecdote and I also used many of the things we chatted about as examples of the differences between German and Spanish culture. Had we just stuck to discussing the presentation, I would actually have taken away far less from that day. People from monochronic work cultures often complain that polychronic cultures are less efficient. I have learned that efficiency works on many levels, be they polychronic or monochronic.

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