Derek Sivers

When Cultures Collide - by Richard D. Lewis

When Cultures Collide - by Richard D. Lewis

ISBN: 1904838022
Date read: 2014-07-16
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Masterpiece of cultural observations. I wish there were more books like this. My Wood Egg books were created with the same goal. Insights into different countries' cultures. Some amazing, like the reason for American's lack of manners, or Japanese procedures. My detailed notes don't do it justice because I practically underlined the entire book, I loved it so much.

my notes


Comparisons of national cultures often begin by highlighting differences in social behavior. These various manners and mannerisms cause us great amusement. We smile at foreign eccentricity, congratulating ourselves on our normality. And yet we are aware that these idiosyncrasies are largely superficial.

We join strangers in their social actions partly to conform and partly for fun. But what goes on in our heads remains a private, well-protected constant.

Whatever is said to you will be a brief projection of the inner world of the other person’s thoughts.

There are few countries in the world where people do not believe, at the bottom of their hearts, that they are the best, or the most intelligent, or at least normal.

It is remarkable how many common concepts are rooted so firmly in a similar manner in very different societies. Everyone has different notions of these concepts that appeal to so many cultures.

Ethics can be turned upside down. The American calls the Japanese unethical if the latter breaks a contract. The Japanese says it is unethical for the American to apply the terms of the contract if things have changed.

It is common sense in Germany and Sweden to form an orderly bus line. In Naples and Rio it is common sense to get on the bus before anyone else.

We can achieve a good understanding of our foreign counterparts only if we realize that our “cultural glasses” are coloring our view of them. We need to examine the special features of our own culture. Once we realize that we, too, are a trifle strange, is to understand the subjective nature of our ethnic or national values.

The American view that the individual must triumph. In the U.S. you start at the very bottom, give it all you’ve got, pull yourself up by your own boot straps, guts it out and get to the very top. It’s rags to riches, in a land where everybody is equal—in theory. It’s a daunting task, but fortunately Americans are unfailing optimists and future-oriented. They are opportunistic, quick to take chances. The history of the U.S. presented many golden opportunities to those who grabbed fastest.


Switzerland and Germany, along with Britain, the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the Netherlands, Austria and Scandinavia, have a linear vision of time and action. They suspect, like the Americans, that time is passing (being wasted) without decisions being made or actions being performed. These groups are also monochronic; that is, they prefer to do only one thing at a time, to concentrate on it and do it within a fixed schedule.

Linear-active people, like Swedes, Swiss, Dutch and Germans, do one thing at a time, concentrate hard on that thing and do it within a scheduled time period. These people think that in this way they are more efficient and get more done.

Multi-active people think they get more done their way.

Multi-active people do not like to leave conversations unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time.

Reactive cultures excel in subtle, nonverbal communication, which compensates for the absence of frequent interjections. What is not said may be the main point of the reply.

In data-oriented cultures, one does research to produce lots of information that is then acted on. Swedes, Germans, Americans, Swiss and Northern Europeans do this.

Dialogue-orientated cultures: Italians and other Latins, Arabs and Indians. These people see events and business possibilities “in context” because they already possess an enormous amount of information through their own personal information network.

Dialogue-oriented and multi-active people do ten things at once and are therefore in continuous contact with humans. They obtain from these people an enormous amount of information—far more than Americans or Germans will gather by spending a large part of the day in a private office, door closed, looking at the computer screen. Multi-active people are knee-deep in information. At meetings they tend to ignore agendas or speak out of turn. How can you forecast a conversation? Discussion of one item could make another meaningless.

Americans are people of action; they cannot bear to be idle.

Spaniards, Italians and Arabs will ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations will be left unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time.

In China, they frequently complain that Americans, in China to do business, often have to catch their plane back to the U.S. “in the middle of the discussion.” The American sees the facts as having been adequately discussed; the Chinese feel that they have not yet attained that degree of closeness—that satisfying sense of common trust.

The Japanese have a keen sense of the unfolding or unwrapping of time. This is well described by Joy Hendry in her book “Wrapping Culture”. It also involves love of compartmentalization of procedure, of tradition, of the beauty of ritual.

Cultures observing both linear and cyclic concepts of time see the past as something we have put behind us and the future as something that lies before us. In Madagascar, the opposite is the case. The Malagasy imagine the future as flowing into the back of their heads, or passing them from behind, then becoming the past as it stretches out in front of them. The past is in front of their eyes because it is visible, known and influential. The Malagasy consider the future unknowable. It is behind their head where they do not have eyes. Buses in Madagascar leave, not according to a predetermined timetable, but when the bus is full. The situation triggers the event.

How does one schedule an event where the Japanese will turn up 10 minutes early, the Germans and the Swiss on time, the Americans and British a bit late, the French after them and the Brazilians arriving an hour after the party was due to end?


The language we speak largely determines our way of thinking, as distinct from merely expressing it. Thinking in two different languages gives us added dimensions of reality.

Spaniards and Italians regard their languages as instruments of eloquence. To achieve greater expressiveness, they use their hands, arms and facial expressions and make maximum use of pitch and tone. They are not necessarily being dramatic or overemotional. They want you to know how they feel. They will appeal, directly and strongly, to your good sense, warm heart or generosity if they want something from you.

Exaggeration and hyperbole are at the bottom of most American expressions, contrasting sharply with the understated nature of the British.

America: when immigrants speaking many varieties of halting English were thrown together, the well-worn cliché was more understandable than originality or elegance of expression. The American language has never recovered from the exigencies of this period.

Good manners, invented by the upper classes theoretically in the interests of smooth social intercourse, in fact developed into a repressive code which put people in their place. Happily, Americans resent being sorted out in this way and shortly afterwards invented bad manners, which saved us all a lot of trouble.

“Complete September’s final report by 5:30 P.M.” comes out in Japanese as “It’s October 10th today, isn’t it? Our controller hasn’t asked to see September’s report yet. I wonder if he’ll come around tomorrow. You never know with him…” The actual order is never given—there is no need, the staff are already scrambling to their books.

The French language is crisp and incisive, a kind of verbal dance or gymnastics of the mouth, which presses home its points with an undisguised, logical urgency. It is rational, precise, ruthless in its clarity.

Sincerity takes us a long way. Europeans, Asians and Americans meet regularly on business and at conferences and manage to avoid giving offense, by and large, by being their honest selves. At such initial gatherings faux pas are ignored, even considered charming.


Every country gets the government it deserves.

Sub-Saharan Africa is divided into more than 600 culture groups. The European powers met in Berlin in 1884 and agreed on boundaries and spheres of influence. Such arbitrary divisions were disastrous for African culture, as the political map bore very little resemblance to the cultural, traditional one. This means that the term nation has little meaning for most Africans.

The total African GDP (including the countries in the north) is only roughly the same as South Korea or the Netherlands.

Cultural myopia - how ethnocentrism blinds us to the salient features of our own cultural makeup, while making us see other cultures as deviations from our correct system.


Richard D. Lewis is currently cross-cultural consultant to the World Bank. Mr. Lewis, who speaks ten European and two Asiatic languages, is Chairman of Richard Lewis Communications plc, an international institute of language and cross-cultural training with offices in over a dozen countries. He founded the quarterly magazine “Cross Culture” in 1989. His latest publication, The Cultural Imperative, forecasts global trends in the twenty-first century.