Euro Crisis and North-South Business Behavior

The financial crisis in the euro zone has reawakened old stereotypes:
Hard-working, disciplined, tax-paying, frugal northerners versus lazy, improvident, tax-dodging southerners.

There are kernels of truth in these old chestnuts, but Angela Merkel erred embarrassingly when she announced, “Greeks take too many holidays.” The next day aides pointed out that Germans actually enjoy more holidays per year than Greeks.

Having spent eight years as an expat manager in northern European countries and another eight in the south, I am familiar with these stereotypes — and with some kernels of truth as well. For example, I found real differences in north-south attitudes toward time.  For a 9 a.m. meeting in Hamburg I was expected to show up at 8:55 a.m. That’s considered punctual in Germany. In Italy as you go south down the boot, the clock slows. At a meeting in Turin or Milan my Italian counterparts tended to appear almost on time, maybe five or ten minutes late. But in Rome it was more likely 15-20 late and in Naples people were often half an hour tardy — and no one needed to apologize. That said, the Italians in my Florence office were always dependably on time.

In the 1960s Edward T. Hall coined the terms “monochronic time” for the behavior of cultures like those of northern Europe, and “polychronic” for Italians, Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese. Hall rated the clock-conscious Germans as the most monochronic of all cultures.

Visitors who do business on both sides of the Alps remark on another difference: Northerners are more likely to follow rules and regulations. Many southerners find such behavior boring. So whereas German pedestrians usually wait patiently for the little green man to show it’s safe to cross the street, Italians tend to cross whenever they feel like it. Perhaps that trait is related to the southern penchant for non-payment of taxes?

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