EXPLAINED: how business mentality and psychology differs between countries

If you want to pursue a business career today, you're certain to have contact with people from many cultures and countries. While globalisation is a powerful force, it has not swept away all the cultural differences that shape how people work.

EXPLAINED: how business mentality and psychology differs between countries
Photo: Getty Images

Studying or training at an institution that promotes cross-cultural understanding could therefore help you work more productively with both international colleagues and businesses in other countries. 

To get some expert insight on this important topic, The Local spoke to Benjamin Voyer, a psychologist, behavioural scientist and a professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship at ESCP Business School. With campuses in six major cities in six European countries, cultural diversity is a key part of the learning process at this prestigious business school.

Find out how ESCP Business School can provide you with unique cross-cultural experience

A psychological edge

Why do you need an understanding of psychology in business at all? “An understanding of how people’s values affect their behaviour is crucial,” says Professor Voyer. 

As the world becomes more complex, psychological insights can “give you an edge” whether you’re designing a product, tailoring marketing for different audiences – or just trying to get the best out of your own multinational team.

This is why ESCP’s Bachelor in Management (BSc) – which students complete over three years in three countries – includes an Introduction to Psychology and Sociology course. “It’s so important that we teach this from year one,” says Professor Voyer, who teaches at ESCP’s London campus.

Photo: Professor Voyer of ESCP Business School

Individualism: US and UK rank highly

So what are the key differences between major countries in Europe and the US, for instance? Professor Voyer says while it’s important to avoid reducing nations to stereotypes, some clear distinctions remain.

He points to Hofstede Insights and its model for comparing countries on six cultural dimensions as an authoritative source for these differences in the business world.

In terms of individualism, for example, the UK ranks nearly as highly as the US – and significantly ahead of Italy, France and Germany. Spain, with its strong family connections, has a notably low score for individuality among European countries, with Austria and Poland also relatively low.

“Generally, European countries have a lot of common values that relate to individualism,” says Professor Voyer. “They promote being unique and expressing your individuality.”

But if you want to follow a truly individualistic path in business, the US and the UK appear to be especially favourable locations.

“In the US, your working life tends to form a more important part of who you are than in Europe, and discussions about money are less taboo,” adds Professor Voyer. “In some European countries, like Poland, avoiding uncertainty and family values matter more.”

Know someone ready for a cross-cultural challenge? Find out more about ESCP’s Bachelor in Management (BSc) and download the brochure

‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nations

Can a country be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? It sounds like a question that could easily invite controversy. But according to Professor Voyer, the evidence from psychology says some of the clearest differences in Europe are in this area  – so long as you understand how the terms are interpreted.

A high score for masculinity indicates, among other things, a society driven by competition to be the best, while a low score means caring for others and quality of life are more dominant values, according to Hofstede Insights.

Scandinavian countries are especially ‘feminine’ by this criteria – Sweden scores only five, with Norway and Denmark not much higher. By contrast, ‘masculine’ countries include Italy (70), the UK (66), Germany (66) and the US (62). France and Spain are more balanced.

Photo: Getty Images

“In ‘masculine’ countries, gender roles are more strictly defined,” says Professor Voyer. “The expectation that nurses are female and doctors are male is much more marked than in Sweden or Norway.

“But it doesn’t necessarily mean masculinity is dominant. ‘Feminine’ cultures allow for more balance if you as a woman want to be a CEO or member of parliament, for example.”

Power distance

The way business is done varies greatly according to local attitudes to hierarchy. This is measured by the ‘power distance’ element of the rankings.

In countries with low scores, managers count on the experience of team members and employees can expect to be consulted. Examples include the Scandinavian countries again – with Denmark standing out – and Austria.

The UK and Germany are also relatively informal, with both scoring only a little more highly than Sweden. France ranks as significantly more hierarchical, along with Spain to a slightly lesser degree.

“The French language has a formal and informal way of talking to people that shapes how social hierarchy works,” says Professor Voyer. “I’m British and French. If I speak French, I tend to say ‘vous’ to formally address people in a shop or a working interaction. But in English-speaking countries, I’m more informal because the language is more direct.”

According to Hofstede Insights, French companies usually have “one or two hierarchical levels more than comparable companies in Germany and the UK”. CEOs of big French companies also use PDG (for President Director General), as a more prestigious alternative to CEO.

Cross-cultural learning

In addition to London, ESCP has campuses in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Turin, and Warsaw. Professor Voyer says the cross-cultural approach offers students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc) programme invaluable preparation for the business world.

“One of the straightforward definitions of culture is ‘how do we do things?’” he says. “Every course has a group work component where you work with the same team for a semester. That challenges students to understand the group dynamics and resolve differences, which is very important for anyone who wants an international career.”

Want an international business career or know someone who does? Find out more about studying at ESCP Business School

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How do I get a student visa for Germany and what does it let me do?

Germany offers an excellent quality of education for much lower fees than universities in most English-speaking countries. Plus, a student visa comes with a few extra advantages – if you can get your head around the bureaucracy. Here's what you need to know.

How do I get a student visa for Germany and what does it let me do?

In stark contrast to many countries – particularly English-speaking ones – where tuition fees can run you up a bill into the thousands every semester, studying at a German university comes at a typical price tag in the hundreds, yes hundreds, of euros per year. Rather than explicit tuition fees, students at German public universities, even non-EU international ones, pay an “administrative fee” of around €300 a semester, which often includes a transport ticket.

That’s on top of Germany having high quality education and offering a relatively affordable environment for students.

But as with so many things about life in Germany, the key question is: what about the bureaucracy?

While it comes with its fair share of paperwork, a German student visa is a bit simpler to figure out than many other German visas, and it comes with some important privileges other countries don’t always have for their student visas.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The different types of higher education in Germany

Who needs a student visa vs. a student residence permit?

Germany’s residence permit system of immigration means that you generally apply for your right to stay in the country to pursue your studies from your local immigration office after you’ve already arrived, found accommodation, and registered with your local authority at the Bürgeramt.

Any non-EU citizen staying in Germany for longer than three months to study at a German public university, accredited private university, or technical institute needs to apply for this permit.

To get it, you’ll need to make an appointment with your local immigration office and bring your cache of documents. The most important of these, rather obviously, is a certificate confirming your enrolment in an accredited study programme. You’ll also obviously need your application form, biometric pictures, and your valid passport with your valid visa to enter Germany – if you needed one to travel to the country.

A sign on the State Office for Immigration (LEA) on Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

You may also be asked for proof of health insurance and financial resources to support yourself, which typically will be a deposit in a blocked account proving you have enough money to live in Germany for a year. This is typically just under €1,000 a month. You may also be asked for the same documents you will have used to register your address with your local authority – such as your rental contract or letter from your landlord confirming your address. Then you’ll need to pay the fee.

READ ALSO: Tip of the week: How to open a blocked account in Germany

As many veterans of German bureaucracy might tell you: when in doubt, bring every document you can.

Once your residence permit is granted, you can stay in Germany up to the end of its validity. If you don’t finish your studies by the time it runs out, you can typically apply to extend it by booking another appointment at your local or regional immigration office and providing proof of progress in your studies.

While all non-EU students generally need a residence permit, not everyone needs a student visa to enter the country. If you’re a national of a country that enjoys visa-free travel with Germany, you can enter Germany without applying for a student visa first and stay for up to three months while waiting for your student residence permit to be processed.

Visa application forms

Visa application forms at Hamburg Foreigner’s Office. Recent graduates of German universities are entitled to a special type of jobseeker’s visa, and a shorter wait to permanent residence if they find a job. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Students who aren’t from a country with visa-free travel with Germany will need to apply for a student visa at a German embassy or consulate abroad to be able to enter Germany. They’ll typically need the same documents as a residence permit applicant will need, along with certain identity documents, like their birth certificate.

Can I work as a student in Germany?

Yes. But there is a limit on how much time you can work while studying. Non-EU students can generally work up to 120 full days per six-month semester – or 240 half days – without approval from immigration offices. This doesn’t count any work that students might do while on semester break, during which no limit applies.

Self-employment is also allowed, but does need the permission of the relevant immigration office, which will determine whether the self-employed work could jeopardise studies.

That said, the government is currently in the process of loosening these rules to make studying in Germany more attractive – and affordable – for people from abroad. New, looser rules could potential come in later this year. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: What’s in Germany’s new draft law on skilled immigration?

What happens after I graduate?

Owing to the country’s skilled labour shortage, after you graduate your programme in Germany, you can renew your student residence permit and stay in the country for up to 18 months to find a position relating to your qualifications.

If you find a relevant job, you can then convert your student permit into an applicable work visa and stay in Germany to work.

For more information on how that works, you can check out our dedicated article on the subject.

READ ALSO: How to stay in Germany after graduating from a German university