Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Rules of the game

Book cover

by Nan Leaptrott, International Thompson, 1996.


Cultural understanding needs simplifying. For example there is a difference between protocol and etiquette. Culture is presented in three types: tribal, collective and pluralist, and how to respond to them is discussed. A number of different countries are considered.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in June 2001)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

The American business guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, suggests in her recent book on the digital economy Evolve that a distinctive dotcom workplace style or ‘e-culture’ is emerging and that its features are similar all over the world. This raises a question. If the digital economy is going to dominate business (see Business @ the speed of thought by Bill Gates), will cultural differences and their impact on global business disappear?

This would surely be a premature conclusion. The work of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars and other leading researchers has shown conclusively that the way business and organisations work is strongly affected by differing, deep-seated cultural assumptions held by different societies. We have increasingly realised that international managers and organisations need to take positive account of cultural differences. So it may be timely to remind ourselves about the importance of national cultures and to do so by looking at a recent ‘classic’ from the literature on cross-cultural business. This would also be useful as the book in question deserves to be better known (among a UK audience anyway).

According to Nan Leaptrott, American global business consultant and author of Rules of the Game, international business - even on the Internet - is all about personal interaction. In her book, she offers a simplified but practical and powerful way to understand cultural interaction. She also provides a methodology to follow when preparing for and conducting business encounters in specific countries around the world. Such a methodology is necessary, she says, because international business is played differently in different parts of the world and it is vital to know the rules of the game by which the other player is playing. To play the game, you have to understand the role of both protocol and etiquette in international business.

Leaptrott makes a clear distinction between protocol and etiquette. Protocol, she says, is what to do in a given situation. Etiquette is how to do it, and how to do it gracefully. This is just like the difference in figure skating between the scores given for technical merit and those for artistic impression. Take a simple example. In Japan, (which is what she calls a ‘collective’ culture), the protocol is that, upon first meeting, all players exchange business cards. The etiquette is that the cards are exchanged in a very ritualistic manner: the card is presented with both hands so that the recipient can read it, and the card is treated with reverence, as it bears the identity of the person. So never put the card away in the presence of the giver. Your ‘strategy’ should be to ensure your cards are of high-quality print and paper, that they are bilingual, and you should be prepared to hand out a large number.

Leaptrott bases her approach on a model of world cultures that examines the fundamental motivating factors within each culture, as well as the rules for behaviour that grow out of the basic beliefs held by each culture. She describes points of protocol for specific countries and what purpose they serve. She shows how to deduce the proper protocol when you encounter a new situation and how to develop a game plan for any business interaction. She also identifies the three fundamental business cultures to be found around the world and how to recognise them. For each culture, she describes the basic motivating factors and how to develop a character profile for the person or people you will meet there.

Generally speaking, according to Leaptrott, the world’s cultures can be divided into three fundamental types: tribal, collective, and pluralist.

In the tribal culture (eg Spain, South America, Africa, and also Ireland), the primary focal point of the individual, the structure through which one derives one’s identity, is the family unit - more accurately speaking, the clan or extended family. This is a close-knit group whose members are associated through heredity and who have a shared historical perspective. Members feel a sense of connection to the past through ancestors and to the future through children. The family and its name and honour must be defended at all costs.

The collective culture (mostly Asia) engages a much broader concept of group affiliation. This can be a town, a nation or a race. The individual finds identity through affiliation with the larger group. To maintain this group identity, it is important that the group foster homogeneity. It is important to the individual’s identity that he or she is not singled out and that he or she is just like everyone else. It is frightening for those who go beyond or reject the group and look for something different or personal. They are nothing without the group.

The pluralist culture (eg Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA) contains a variety of institutions or groups that provide social structure. One can find personal identity through family, religious affiliation, social group, business or political organisation, most likely choosing a combination of these. In a pluralist society, individuals have to construct their own identity. Independence is the ultimate value, groups depend on the mutual consent of individuals, and conformity is neither demanded nor assumed.

These cultural governing principles give basic information about a player’s tendencies and provide answers to such questions as: How does he interact with others? What is his attitude to foreigners? Why is he in the game and how does he define winning? What is his business environment like? How does he conduct business? How does he give feedback and approach problem solving? (When Leaptrott uses the term ‘tribal’, she is not referring to primitive societies. England, she says is a mixture of the tribal and the pluralist cultures - the English derive much of their identity from their family and its place in society.)

Each of the three cultures has its own basic game plan, which you also need to understand. But in global business, winning is relative. Competitors from other countries or regions may be playing quite different types of game during the same transaction. What an American sees as a win-win situation, a Chinese businessperson may perceive as a win-lose situation.

Your own overall game plan for global business should include the strategic use of protocol. This, says Leaptrott, consists not merely of knowing how to shake hands. It consists of ‘knowing how to shake hands with the right person at the right time in the right way so that you communicate respect, knowledge and self-confidence’. You can choose merely to go through the motions or you can use your knowledge of protocol strategically, to your advantage.

Leaptrott takes us in detail through a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate how her concepts can be put into practice when approaching an unfamiliar culture. This shows us how to deduce correct protocol from a known cultural identity and how to develop an appropriate game plan. Her approach - which she says is appropriate for dealing with any culture anywhere in the world - consists of the following steps:

  1. Knowing the playing field - the general environment, including the geography and climate.
  2. Learning the governing principles for that area - these are determined by which of the three cultures the country adheres to (although each country will have its own variations).
  3. Looking at the character of the individual businessperson that one will be dealing with and developing a player portrait (Why is he in the game? How does he conduct business? etc).
  4. Defining your objective and devising a strategic game plan (now that you know the likely behaviour of your opponent).
  5. Advancing through the game by applying your game plan strategy and rules of protocol in responding to the challenges.
  6. Incorporating strategy and etiquette techniques to help you toward your goal.
  7. Finding ways to negotiate the obstacles which may arise (from the other player’s loose organisational structure or fear of taking risks, for example) so you can build a working relationship and approach your goal.
  8. Winning, when you have taken all the steps necessary to achieve your goal.

In addition to general guidance, the book is crammed with detail on specific places. Two chapters present detailed information about major regions and countries of the world, showing how the game is played in different parts of the globe. These include the Arab World Game, the Pacific Rim Game, the Australian Game and the African Game, among others. A final, long chapter serves as a quick reference guide to many individual nations ranging from Argentina to Vietnam. For each country, Leaptrott provides data about its cultural type and primary motivation (for England, the latter is ‘maintenance of both status and the status quo’!), the game plan pursued by that culture, and the local rules for business. Leaptrott even includes a chapter on ‘The Exciting Game of International Dining’, which she describes as ‘a game of position, skill and honour’.

Leaptrott is concerned not merely with suggesting what to do but also why a behaviour is appropriate and necessary in a particular cultural setting. She lays down three prime directives for cross-cultural preparation. Never play the game by trying to become like your opponent, and never expect your opponent to become like you. Never judge another culture as being good or bad relative to your own. Remember that the global business game is about people. (The latter is a warning for Americans who, says Leaptrott, tend to focus on numbers and products rather than seeing business as interaction among people).

Some people may say that Leaptrott’s approach encourages stereotyping. The savvy international manager knows, however, that a stereotype can actually be a very useful starting point in any new cross-cultural situation - as long as he or she is prepared to modify or abandon the stereotype when new information appears. That is how Leaptrott’s book should be used - as a springboard for further reflection rather than a definitive description of particular cultures.

To go back to the question we started with. Digital technology is bound to have some impact on culture - and vice versa. Just how the two interact and how they together affect business performance might be a fruitful area for research. Is it possible that some cultures may possess some advantages over others in the digital economy? If Rosabeth Moss Kanter is right when she suggests (in her book Evolve) that dotcom success depends on creating a spirit of community among employees and partners, do the collective cultures described by Nan Leaptrott have a head start? Or, will the greater individualism of the pluralists have the edge in innovation?

Back to the top