When in Rome don’t do as the Romans


Would you agree with the following statement: ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’. Do you agree or don’t you agree? In an attempt to gain insight and deeper understanding of cultural differences, would you adapt to the local culture to reach your goals or would you lean towards a rather different approach. And what will these different approaches bring you in terms of opportunities or challenges in this globalized world where we seek our way to collaborate.

So here I’m finding myself on one of those typical grey and uninspiring iffy afternoons like one in a zillion over the winter in a likewise uninspiring building… Inside the building the contrast couldn’t be bigger because the setting is very inspiring, exited and colorful as over 700 participants representing over 40 nationalities surround me, how cool is that, for a typical grey and boring day at this time of year.

The workshop on Intercultural Competences just started and the air is filled with energy and diversity. At some point during the course of the afternoon the workshop facilitator now are asks us to change places and find a new partner for the next exercise. I’m ending up next to a young woman who happens to be Italian, she tells me that she is on an internship and stays in the Netherlands for a couple of month. She only just arrived some weeks ago and is exploring my tiny country. Than the workshop facilitator explains what to do for the upcoming exercise by setting the stage as follows: pretend you where to sit next to a new friend whom you’re going to invite over for a dinner party at your house. So far easy as can be. And as the facilitator continues: the one who receives the invite, you instruction is to decline the invitation.

And so obeying the facilitator in his instructions, the young Italian woman invites me over for a dinner party. I can hear myself replying to her explaining in a very indirect way by creating a broader context of how I would have loved to accept her lovely invite and for sure will make an effort to arrange another time and how I feel deeply sorry of unfortunately having to decline …… Anyway circling around the topic of actually declining and finding a tons of excuses why I would love to join her dinner but rather can’t make it tonight.

Now it’s time to switch our roles and something inter-culturally interesting starts to evolve…so as the exercise continues: I invite her over to my house for a dinner party. And with her half long brownish hair and her friendly hazelnut colored eyes she rather bluntly replies by saying that she already bought some fish for tonight’s dinner and for that reason can’t make it to accept my invite. I notice myself stumbling in a mixture of being confused of listening to this direct answer coming from someone of a Latin culture, who is supposed to reply in a very indirect and fussy way and at the same time acknowledging her for her smooth adaptation to the blunt and direct way, we Dutch tend to answer. Her reaction to my acknowledgement is as surprising as her reply during the exercise, when she tells me that in the event she would have been invited in Rome she would have given the exact same answer….

Now at this point, let’s return to the former statement: ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’. Do you agree or don’t you agree? In this attempt to gain insight and deeper understanding of cultural differences, would you still adapt to the local culture to reach your goals or would you lean towards a rather different approach. So to me it’s pretty clear now, based on the shared experience: When in Rome don’t do as the Romans.

Culture Clues for Dutch managers when working in a (virtual) team on dealing with Italians:

  • There’s a general need for achievement and to excel (Ego needs).
  • Status is important to show off success.
  • People tend to live in order to work.
  • Decisions may sometimes be arrived at by taking a vote just after a brief discussion has taken place; then buy-in must be achieved which might take some time before being able to start implementing.
  • People tend to overstate and expose their performances.
  • People want to discuss business anytime, even at social gatherings.
  • Expect people to live according to the motto “Let the best win”.
  • Anticipate competition to be seen as positive.
  • The work environment should give a chance to excel.
  • Expect strict accountability in work life to retrace the degree of achievement.
  • Reckon on the successful achiever to be well respected.
  • People tend to sympathize with the successful achiever and distain with the unfortunate.
  • ‘Time is money” – meetings should be “to the point” and with a clear objective.
  • Expect the team members to self-promote and spotlight their personal performance.

Culture Clues for Italian managers when working in a (virtual) team on dealing with Dutch:

  • People consider a good work-life balance important. They try to avoid working over time.
  • People value an enjoyable working environment.
  • Trying to be better than others is neither socially nor materially rewarded.
  • Decisions are made through reaching consensus; this takes a lot of meetings and time, but after consensus has been reached, the implementation will take place quickly.
  • Small talk and social (or business) functions will focus on an individual’s life and interests rather than just business.
  • Conflicts are avoided.
  • There’s a general need for affiliation and leveling.
  • People tend to strive for consensus.
  • Status is not so important to show off success.
  • Strict accountability in work life is perceived with distrust.
  • People sympathize with the unfortunate and are jealous of the successful achiever.

For further reading please visit Geert Hofstede