How Finns and French Interact in Business

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The prospect of a union between Nokia and Alcatel raises the question: How well will Finnish and French executives interact?  What will YVES MARTIN, TAUNO TAHTINEN or RITVA VAULAMO have to do to combine effectively in an international team?

Finnish team members’ characteristicts

Finland: Tauno Tahtinen and Ritva Vaulamo

Finnish males are reserved, often introvert, by nature and may seem less than cheerful when joining an international team. Tauno Tähtinen, initially unsmiling, has a firm handshake but says little after being introduced and takes stock of his companions before revealing his views. He distrusts verbosity, enjoys silences and is good at self-effacement. In due course, he will venture his opinions, but will limit his words to what he considers is necessary. Gossip and idle chat are alien to him; he has been taught not to pry or to impose his views on a listener. He has an independent streak and resists persuasion by others. One cannot twist Tauno’s arm. He dislikes the hard sell; even charisma is suspect. He never gushes and frequently appears pessimistic. When left alone, he obviously enjoys his solitude. For sociable Italians and exuberant Spaniards he is enigmatic, opaque and unfathomable.

In spite of his gruff exterior, Tauno has a heart of gold. He brings to the team not only efficiency and utter reliability, but he is essentially a very modern individual, possessing the type of perspicacity and inventiveness which enabled Finns to transform their struggling, war-battered state in 1945 into one of the most developed countries in the world. The exponential rise of Nokia from tyres and timber to leading the world’s telecommunications industry is indicative of the Finns and their characteristic business style. Tauno’s colleagues may ask themselves: how did Finland at the turn of the century become number one in global competitiveness? Why is Finland dominating the field of mobile phones? How did she become the world leader in managing water resources? Why is she designated annually (along with Japan and Korea) top in educational standards? Why are Finns regarded as the ideal peace-keepers? Why does she lead the world in environmental sustainability? Why has Finland won more Olympic medals per capita than any other nation?

Tauno probably knows the answers to many of these questions, but he is not likely to tell you. Finns are modest about their achievements and rarely mention them. They are, however, intensely proud of what they have done and have innate self-confidence (though that was not the case until the end of the 20th century). In the post-war period, they suffered from a periodic inferiority complex; it took them several decades of effort and struggle to convince themselves that they really were the best. Now they believe they are more efficient than Germans and work faster than Americans, but it rarely escapes their lips. Suffice it to say that their standards of truth, honesty and task orientation are irreproachable. Though jealous of their privacy and the right to dissent, they have a strong concept of service. Their tenacity (sisu) is legendary.

Tauno is a valuable ally to his team leader. Though decidedly reticent in discussions, he has a habit of delivering succinct summaries in the latter stages of a meeting. His colleagues notice that though he speaks little, he is worth listening to when he does. His apparent pessimism (for he often makes gloomy pronouncements) turns out to be realism. Finns regard statements as promises; Tauno is careful not to forecast anything he cannot deliver. His countrymen have retained humility in the midst of their success. Any form of boasting is taboo in Finland; adherence to facts and accuracy is mandatory. One of the great advantages of having a Finn in the team is that he is always willing to discuss worst scenarios as well as best ones. This is a valuable resource for a chairman who might feel his group is getting carried away by (American or Italian) optimism. Tauno is a good listener and hardly ever interrupts a colleague. If he disagrees, however, he will say so at the end. His directness is legendary and he is not afraid of confrontation, though he remains polite. The structure and thrust of the Finnish language does not calibrate too closely with Indo-European tongues, so that occasionally he may sound brusque (too blunt) for delicate listeners like Swedes or Japanese. Finns are in fact hardly ever impolite to the point of rudeness, but sometimes have to learn to soften their expressions as English people tend to (“That’s an original thought” = “That won’t work”).

Team managers find they can rely on Tauno’s work ethic, diligence, decisiveness and courage, fidelity, straightforwardness and dry humour. He has respect for authority; he considers status is gained through achievement. He is of course democratic and classless. As a citizen of a young, vibrant nation, he is result- and future-oriented. His twin ideals are reliability and capability.

Tauno, though reticent, has transparent goals. The team leader can motivate him by being transparent himself – open, direct and to the point. People managing Finns must remain low key at all times, display modesty and understatement. Tauno is not terribly interested in small talk; one has a cup of coffee and then starts. Importance is attached to accuracy: what is said is more important than who says it. Tauno likes clear instructions and then wants freedom to carry them out. A manager should never hover over a Finn. Finns need both physical and mental space. Give a Finn a task and he will go away and do it, preferably alone. He will bring the results to you in due course. It does, however, pay for a team leader to share his planning early on with a Finn and ask him for his ideas. If he does not, the Finn will proceed alone to an entrenched position from which it will be difficult to dislodge him later.

Tauno’s pace is steady and consistent, but not overly hurried. The day should finish with an understanding of items agreed upon. Mutual agreements must be adhered to, no debt of any kind must be left hanging. Protocol is minimal, lunches are quick. Almost any service or help can be extracted from a Finnish colleague by showing him that you are relying on him. The team leader should be willing to share Tauno’s silences, learn a few words of Finnish, know the name of the Finnish President and refrain from praising the Swedes or Russians too much.

Cultural traits attributed to Tauno Tähtinen, particularly with regard to communication, reflect attitudes of the Finnish male in social and business situations. Finnish women, such as Ritva Vaulamo, while sharing many of the same characteristics, are nevertheless much more outgoing than the men, displaying few signs of uneasiness in the presence of foreigners. The Finnish woman could be described as strong-willed, adventurous, restless, often fearless, not without charm, and decidedly in love with life. Her level of education is second to no one in the world of women, and this gives her a feeling of self-confidence, making her a force to be reckoned with in international business.

As a communicator, Ritva Vaulamo outshines Tauno. She often commands three or four languages (speaking better English than many British girls). Unlike the Finnish male, she plays her full part in a two-way conversation, not missing her ‘turn’ and shunning reflective silences so popular with Finnish men. She has many of the communicative qualities they would dearly like to have. With foreigners she does not always find the right message, but usually she finds the right response.

The number of Finnish women participating in multi-national teams is growing rapidly. (Perhaps the most famous to date has been Sari Baldauf, President of Nokia Cellular Systems). The trend for the future is quite clear. Given their ability to establish early rapport with non-Finns, Finnish women have been somewhat under-utilised. Ritva has much of the attractive, human-oriented magnetism that is required in an international group and has developed the psychological skills to enable her to interact successfully with ethnic cultures differing widely from her own.

French Team Members’ Characteristics

France: Yves Martin

Yves Martin is a Parisian, with all the clear-sightedness and quick imagination typical of the people of that city. The team leader has to keep an eye on him, for French people believe in their uniqueness (just as Japanese and Chinese do), the difference being that in the case of the French they are not shy in telling you about it. Their vivacity is such that they often see others as somewhat wooden. They accept the authority of a chairman, but are not afraid to be maverick. As they tend to clarify their own thoughts through wordiness (ruminating aloud), this can cause meetings to over-run.

While a Frenchman may not be an ideal member of any international team that wants to run smoothly and harmoniously, he nevertheless has a lot of positives to contribute.

His perceptive and quick mind will animate a team (on occasion he can set it on fire). Yves Martin is consistent – that is to say, that although he is clearly opinionated and pushes his proposals forward with vigour, he does not desert logic. Rationality – indeed Cartesian logic – is the cornerstone of French argumentation. Cartesian logic is related to Rene Descartes, French philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650).

Descartes’ methods of deduction and intuition inform modern metaphysics. The theory is to doubt all one’s impulsive ideas, but to find one indubitable truth or fact, then focus on it and proceed to build theories and propositions on it. This gives French people great confidence and momentum in pursuing an argument. Others, such as Japanese or Americans, may find fault with this approach, being guided perhaps by different cognitive processes (Asian) or simply fondness for ‘hunches’ (American). They may also judge the ‘indubitable’ truth as ‘dubious’.

Yves Martin will display considerable determination using this type of logic. Like most Frenchmen, he would rather be right than popular. It is often said that French people regard theories as more important than truth and may ignore certain facts for this reason. An official of the British Statistics Board, working on an Anglo-French team, actually quoted his French counterpart, who had been clearly shown that a certain pump had functioned perfectly for 18 months, as saying “Yes, it may work in practice, but does it work in theory?”

To be fair to Yves, he will cooperate with you readily if you defeat his logic. After that, he will be hospitable towards your suggestions and will remain your supporter and good friend forever. As long as you remain rational, of course. He is human and considerate – he just sets great store by clarity of thought and vision and always has in mind the historical perspective. He can live in the present, also be futuristic, but basically he is firmly past-oriented. The past is not dead; in fact (as Faulkner said) it is not yet even past.

French executives in teams, also at high-level international meetings (GATT, OECD, etc) not infrequently conflict with colleagues, in big and small ways. During team projects they irritate Anglo-Saxons and others by digressing from the agenda at regular intervals. They do this more than any other nationality, except perhaps Italians. Their reasoning is this: all items leading to progress on the project are inter-related: one thing affects another. If you fire M Dupont unconditionally during Item 2, you will be in desperate straits if he is the only staff member who can help you out in a vital matter which comes up in item 6.

The French have a deep-rooted distrust of the Anglo-Saxon habit of segmenting issues and finalising solutions in sequence. Discussion of the project should, in their view, be all-embracing, that is to consider actions and decisions from a lot of different viewpoints, before finalizing anything. Perhaps it is better not to decide today, but leave it till tomorrow, or even later. Anglo-Saxons habitually dislike leaving anything ‘hanging in the air’. One English chairman, working together with his loquacious and digressive French counterpart, (on a Chunnel committee I attended regularly), used to take up his pencil at 4pm every afternoon (after hours of deliberations) and say wearily, “Mr Chairman, could we please both write down any points we have agreed on?” The Englishman was not too aware that French people regard conversation as an art, and consequently have no objection to prolonging it for its own sake.
Another recurrent problem is that posed by the French sense of intellectual superiority. A Frenchman does not fully believe that a Finn, American, Swede, Slovenian or Bulgarian (among others) can ever really tell him anything he does not know. Consequently he does not listen too carefully to Americans or minor nationalities and may often adopt a condescending or patronizing tone when he addresses them. He shows a little more respect to opinions of the older, ‘established’ nations – Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy – but even with them it is a close thing.

According to modern scientists and psychologists, there exist no differences in the intellectual capacities of any human beings, whether they be Europeans, Asians, Americans, Arabs, Africans or from elsewhere. What, therefore, gives French people the belief, or inclination, to think otherwise? While most of us think we can discount the belief summarily, I see it slightly differently. We talk of the 20th century being the American century and the 19th as being the British one. If we think this way, there is no doubt that the French dominated, in the Western world at least, the 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. Does intellectual strength derive to some extent from experience? For three or four centuries the French developed expertise in a great number of fields: science, medicine, military affairs, law and civic administration, colonization, construction of infrastructure, large-scale transportation, political systems and perhaps most importantly a dominant position in the arts (painting, sculpture, music and the most extensive literature in the Western world).

With this background in the arts and sciences, not to mention their tremendous and far-reaching exposure in world affairs, is it not justifiable for a French person to assume a certain intellectual superiority towards aboriginals or Indians from the depths of the Amazonian jungle and others who have led comparatively secluded and isolated lives?

The question is: can one apply this principle also to others such as Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Albanians, Polynesians, Inuits and Navajos? And where does one draw the line? The French, who gave up any plans they might have had to conquer or dominate the world, still believe that it is their mission to civilise it. That was the avowed aim of François Malraux when he was appointed Minister of Culture by De Gaulle in 1974. The French still spend more money supporting the Instituts Français around the world than the British and Germans spend combined on the British Council and Goethe Institut.

Be all this as it may, Yves Martin is likely to be criticized by his fellow colleagues as being too verbose, too opinionated, too French-centred, anti-American or anti-Anglo-Saxon and lacking understanding of other cultures. He is also too fond of long lunches!

How to control him? A good start is for the team leader to speak good French – if he can, it will win him a lot of allegiance. He should also mention La Belle France, as well as French history, culture and brilliance at every opportunity. He should acknowledge that the French resistance to American influence is partly consistent with playing the role of Defender of European Culture. A good tactic to defend the team from French verbosity is to agree with him early on. One can always re-package later or confuse him with funny stories.

Yves will appreciate a chairman who is well dressed, tries his hand at wit and knows something about French wine and cheese. He enjoys fierce debate. The team leader should let him win; Yves is ready to compromise later if some small concessions are made. One should, however, avoid the word ‘compromise’ as French correlate it with American wheeling and dealing.

The chairman should show Yves his human side – mild emotion suits both. He should also display generosity when he can, even hubristic Frenchmen respond well to and reciprocate generosity. He should try to ignore too much body language, extroversion or cynicism, also tolerate over-inquisitiveness or finicky behaviour. Long-windedness and French interruptions may also have to be permitted. Yves means well, but is used to perorating in a French environment. Also, when negotiating a point he may only reveal his hand at a late stage. Americans see this as devious. The chairman should point out to Yves that ‘all-embracing’ solutions are often difficult and slow to achieve and that HQ has a tendency to encourage quick action. Above all, the team leader should be careful not to contradict himself, use self-deprecation as a tactic and, when he can, tell Yves something he doesn’t know!

It has been proved in the past, e.g. in the case of KONE, that French and Finnish executives can work harmoniously and profitably in combination.  However, as the two cultures are based on very diverse premises, tact, understanding and patience are persistently required.

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