When Peaches Meet Coconuts

Tips from business prof Erin Meyer on understanding cultural differences and helping international attendees connect.

Erin Meyer

Are you a peach or a coconut? The answer describes your personal interaction style,  in a model that Opening General Session speaker  Erin Meyer shared yesterday at PCMA’s Global Professionals Conference – Europe, held at the Palais des Congres de Paris.

And — as is the premise for her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, her research as a professor at international business school INSEAD, and her talk at the conference — it is largely influenced by the cultural system in which a person was raised.

In “peach” cultures, including the United States, people tend to be friendly — soft, like a peach — with strangers or those they have just met. But after some small talk with a peach person, you get to the pit, where the peach protects his or her real self. In these cultures, Meyer said, friendliness isn’t the same thing as friendship.

In “coconut” cultures, people are less open (like the hard shell of a coconut) with those they don’t already know. It takes a while to get to know coconut people, but as you do, they become friendlier and open up. Relationships are built slowly.

I asked Meyer what this might mean for North American–based meeting professionals whose conferences are now attracting participants from around the globe. More specifically, how do you accommodate attendees from countries for whom building personal relationships takes more time and is a necessary precursor to building trust — and therefore doing business — with others? Those countries include Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan, China, and India — and to a lesser extent, France, Italy, and Spain.

Meyer said that scheduling plentiful and longer networking breaks to enable this kind of meaningful interaction is more important than ever at international events. “Instead of a five-minute quick break,” she said, “make your networking breaks at least a half-hour long.”

Meyer brought up another cultural challenge when it comes to meetings — scheduling, but this has more to do with managing your own expectations than building the conference itinerary. Certain cultures (see above list, with the exception of Japan), are more flexible in their approach to time than others (including the U.S., Germany, and Switzerland), Meyer said, so you should expect to see attendees from the more time-flexible cultures enter and leave sessions without regard for the schedule. Which, in turn, requires flexibility on the part of time-obsessed North American meeting organizers.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.