Bridging Cultures - Connecting People


Business Codes

(Edited From: "Cultural Effect of Experience, Beliefs and Values on Ethical Practices ; Perception and translation of codes of behavior across cultural borders." J. Rodriguez and O. Zatsepina, Pub. Moscow State University, Cultural Center, 1995.)

Russia and the other nations of the former USSR have been effectively separated from the rest of the world community for more than a lifetime. This is especially so with respect to the absence of business dealings by private citizens of the USSR in world markets. Many observers ascribe the recent political, social and economic upheavals in the USSR to precisely that; the Nations failure to acknowledge a role for individual Soviet citizens in the internal and world business community. The reconstruction now taking place however; can have exceedingly positive effects on the quality of life of both the citizens of the former Soviet Union, and the world community. Other nations may well look in awe at the enormous potential, as both producers and consumers, of former USSR nations. But, there are obstacles to the realization of that potential. One such obstacle is the lack of experience of private citizens of the former USSR (new businessmen) with codes of conduct established by businessmen in other parts of the world (business ethics). And the converse; westerners lack of experience and understanding of business ethics of citizens of the former USSR.

Ongoing business can only be conducted between individuals who understand, share and follow similar codes of conduct. Without such conformity, behavior can not be predicted and trust can not be established. Risk, a prime ingredient in business activity, can not be reasonably estimated, and thus business projects will not be seriously considered.

The following discussion takes a cultural and linguistic perspective on problems that exist in the conduct of business between individuals who have grown up under the Soviet system and those who have not; specifically Americans. We here consider how different cultural assumptions affect the perception of individuals from different groups regarding the "same" concepts. We concentrate on informal rules of behavior that affect how business is conducted "business ethics". Our central thesis are:
- That conflict between ethical systems need to be understood in terms of each groups underlying, subconscious beliefs.
- That effective business interaction requires that members of each cultural group acknowledge the underlying values of the other.
- That conscious effort must be made by both sides to define and detail the, ethical terms of their interaction since these are matters which usually operate subconsciously and yet affect the behaviors of all.
- That ultimately language contains these terms/concepts and thus much of the burden of communicating them must be born by those who translate and teach it.

Of the many definitions of culture, we choose one used by the Cross Culture Link Corporation, of New York which describes Culture as "the beliefs, values and behaviors shared by a group of people as they approach problems and opportunities of life." With this definition, we can look upon the common behaviors of a "cultural group" as the manifestation of experience, both actual and vicarious, leading to beliefs, which in turn determine values. Out of the groups experience there is an implied sequence; first beliefs, then values, then behaviors. As behaviors are experienced, they confirm and perpetuate the cycle of beliefs and the values of the group.

By examining the experiences and expressed beliefs and values of a cultural group, we may imply the form of its basic code(s) of behavior (ethics). We can then use these observations to compare and contrast the manner in which different cultural groups behave in similar areas of human endeavor. Such analysis may serve to help reduce the incidence of unrealistic expectations and misperceived motives which can arouse conflict and cause discord between members of different cultural groups. Behaviors, shared by a cultural group, are guided by rules which are as often implicit as explicit. Such "rules" can be variously referred to as, morals, ethics, codes, laws etc. With respect to facilitating interactions between cultural groups, we believe more can be gained by concentrating on ethical codes. Unlike laws which are prescriptive, specific, and intended to be clear to all parties in particular circumstances, or morals which carry "divine" authority beyond the criticism or modification of mere men, ethical codes offer the best opportunity for adjustment to the needs of intercultural business exchange.

Codes of ethics provide guidance for decisions that deal with circumstances not previously experienced. They therefore precede and provide the foundation for contracts, agreements, and laws. They establish the fundamentals of "right and wrong" in a society. They bridge the differences between secular and religious claims. They also provide boundaries for actions commonly recognized and therefore taken for granted. Ethics, being an internalized, usually subconscious compass directing social behavior, helps an individual navigate his actions in potentially conflictive circumstances. Unlike John Mackie, however; who writes in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, " morality is not to be discovered but made: we have to decide what views to adopt," we distinguish ethics from morality, allowing ethics to be pragmatic; only a temporary basis for determining "right from wrong". If we leave the idea of "certainty" to the province of morality, then ethics becomes a tool for conserving human interaction in the present moment, allowing time for moral, universal, certainties to be established in the future.

Our focus is on contrasts between the implied ethical systems of Americans and Russians, with respect to "business" practices, but our discussion of these two groups could serve as metaphor for others as well. It is important to note here, however obvious, that generalizations about groups will invariably fall short of fairly describing any individual member of the group. They do however help to provide a useful initial perspective when dealing with new cultures.

When a Russian and an American meet for the purpose of doing business, each brings with him different ethical systems, established from different sets of beliefs, and consequently different values. Even if both speak each others language, it is not always possible to find agreement on how to act. If translation is required, this poses special problems for translators. Words such as "partner, agreement, investment, profit, risk etc." have their equivalent in both languages. The denotation of these words can be established, but their connotations will be significantly different for each group. Because it is most likely that an interpreter will be the instrument of communication between English and Russian speakers there is an exceptional weight of responsibility on their shoulders. Interpreters are compelled in certain respects not only to translate, but to teach the nuances of the language to both parties if they are to truly accomplish understanding between them. But, the responsibility does not fall entirely to the translator. It is seldom feasible nor appropriate for the translator to "fill in" the background for such words in the middle of discussions between the parties. It is up to the affected individuals themselves to work at understanding the belief systems of each other. How an individual understands the concept of partner, for instance, determines the ethical obligations and rules of conduct to which he will adhere in relation to his partner and others.

There are formal partnership agreements in the United States which define the relationship between individual partners; their obligations and responsibilities. These differ in kind. Some are for professionals such as doctors, lawyers, or architects, Other partnerships are for real estate ventures or small business ownership. While there are standard contract forms for all of these, each will contain specific clauses and provisions to satisfy the individual partner's interests. All of these are written, and all are subject to "law". But, underlying the formal legal partnership forms there are certain "ideal" beliefs to which most Americans adhere.

To an American a partner is someone who will support him in areas where he is weaker. A partner will share the burden of the work to be done, putting forth some skill or ability that the other does not have. Partners will share the risks and the rewards in some equitable form. They do not have to be equal, but they must be equitable; fair. A partner acts in the best interests of himself and his partner(s). He can be differed with but his motives are beyond reproach. Trust and confidence exist with a partner. A partnership can not be rushed into, it takes time and consideration. A partnership is expected to last for a while or at least until a predefined purpose is met. Russians appear to have a different view of "partner" (Please note that the preceding presents the "Ideal" view of a partner, not necessarily the "real.") Russians consider anyone with whom they are doing business a "partner". An American might consider such an individual a client or a vendor. If they are involved in an activity with someone by which both expect to derive a benefit, Russians may consider themselves partners. Americans might think of themselves as associates. Russians think of the outcome of a "deal" from the perspective of equally shared benefit but do not factor in the level of risk against return, or the import of capital investment as a risk factor

Given the conflicting beliefs suggested above, it can be seen how conflicting codes of ethics follow. The Americans behavior will be guided by a sense of maintaining some "arms distance" from his Russian "business associate" (client or vendor) while the Russian will expect an openness. The American, guided by " the buyer beware" principal will seek detailed assurances from his Russian counterpart which are taken for granted by the other. As a vendor, the American will want to offer specific assurances of his performance (such details also limit the Americans liability). The Russian will consider such detail at this time unnecessary; to be filled in later. The American will consider benefits from a transaction or activity to be individual and personal (to him the other is an associate, vendor, or client, not a "partner" as understood by the Russian). The Russian will consider the benefits to be mutual and subject to equal sharing.

A related effect is seen with regards to "agreements". An American believes that agreement is not reached until all of its' parts are considered. Therefore the parts of an agreement considered first can only have tentative acceptance subject to any and all other parts which follow. The Russian looks at agreement on each part as finished business. If the American wants to come back to reconsider a point previously "accepted" toward the end of a transaction the Russian will not understand his behavior as anything but unethical. A simplified example of the conflict this could lead to might sound like this: Russian; "but you agreed to my price last week". American; "you never said we would have to wait three months for delivery".

The concept of "profit" provides great opportunity for ethical conflict. An American, believes profit is money that is retained after all other costs are covered. To the American, costs include direct expenses such as raw materials, salaries, transportation, etc. The Russian concurs. The American also adds "overhead" and other indirect expenses, including interest on capital, in his cost considerations. An underlying and subconscious belief of Russians is that if you are not directly paying for it, it is not a cost. It can not be valued. It should not be counted. While an American will consider depreciation of equipment ( the replacement value of the item spread over a period of time; say five years) in his cost calculations, the Russian will dismiss such a cost and consider the charge as "hidden profit." The American will consider money (capital) used to finance a project as entitled to interest and that such interest is a legitimate cost (if it had been borrowed from a bank interest would have been charged, if it had been placed in a bank interest would have been paid.) The Russian will group that too in the category of "profit" and consider its charge unethical on the part of the American.

Earlier we referred to experience as the foundation for beliefs and values from which codes of behavior develop. In the history of both peoples, American and Russian, certain experiences have predominated as prime determinants of the culture. These are reflected in the ways each sees the relationship of the individual to the group; views of present and delayed gratification; the nature of government and the governed; planning and fatalism; responsibility for self and others; the nature of work; conflict of interest and other notions. A discussion of the development of ethics requires that these factors also be explored but that is beyond the scope of this present writing.

These remarks might appear more concerned with culture than with language. That is surely not the intent. They are meant in fact to underscore the importance of language as a vehicle for understanding. We have thus tried to address ourselves to those who pursue the study of language,-- who teach it,-- who interpret it,--- who enjoy it, ---who love, admire, and respect it. At this point in the history of the former Soviet Union, they are well positioned to help reconnect it to a world which is anxious and hungry for that contact. Their skills and sensitivity to the matters we have raised will most certainly affect the speed and efficiency of Russia's ascendance in the international world of commerce and culture.


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