Business in Slovakia, first contact
Four years and a couple of months, that’s how long I’ve been in Bratislava. Roughly the duration of WWI. One of my first lectures in Slovakia was about letters Slovak soldiers wrote home during 1914-1918.
A box of these letters was found some years ago in a town hall. These letters were blocked by the Military Censor of the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Army. The letters weren’t easy to read, because they were written in Slovak, using Hungarian grammar.
During and after this lecture I realised: I hardly know anything of Czechoslovak history, particularly Slovak. And my home is only 1,000 km away.
Why did these soldiers write in a mixed language? What happened? Why do old people still use German and Hungarian words in their conversation?
Pressburg? Poszony? Which language was spoken? What language did I need to speak, to be understood? Not just languages such as Slovak, German, Hungarian or English, but the cultural language, for which no Google translate exists. What are the taboo acts?
Soon I discovered my language (or habits) didn’t suit Slovakia so well.
If I make an appointment, I’m always on time, or 10 minutes early. Slovaks arrive 5 minutes after that. Slovaks aren’t late, no they gave me extra time to prepare. It took me some time to stop getting annoyed when waiting for my counterpart.
When I made an agreement (for business, to sign a contract, to send an offer), the agreement stands. Yes is yes, no is no. Well, in Slovakia an agreement is not so clear, until THE boss, not my counterpart, agreed. Until that time, I had to wait. Delegated responsibility hardly exists. And why not? Because the boss is the boss.
When we had a meeting, I was prepared, otherwise others might be irritated, and a non-prepared for meeting is useless. Often I was the only prepared one. So a meeting took more time, or I had to schedule more meetings. It looked unprofessional; however, I found meetings are for talking about a lot of things, but not the TOPICS. Because that is taking responsibility. And by taking responsibility, people could make mistakes. And making mistakes looks weak. Showing weakness evidently isn’t part of the present Slovak school system. And because no-one is taught that making mistakes is a valuable way to learn, people in Slovakia avoid making mistakes, for example, by not taking responsibility or not acting at all.
When working in teams, I used to spread tasks around (and the responsibility). However everyone wanted to take orders. Meaning no taking initiative, because ’you never told us to do that’.
So, instead of people being able to say what they think and do what’s good for the company, I had to learn a new ‘language’. That includes taking a deep breath, taking time, absorbing the countries’ habits, asking for others’ help (instead of ‘what’s your opinion’), asking questions and realising the only ‘wrong’ question is the one you never asked.
Soon, I created a network of dear Slovak friends and we talked a lot about the how, who and why (and why not). Without Slovak insiders, it’s not easy to do business here. However, I draw red lines. So it’s clear to others what are my do’s and don’ts. Clearness, by some considered as typically Dutch, makes others easier to understand. And it’s respected.
Trust and shared goals are needed. Assumptions are easily made, but a real focus is always indispensable. Not always easy in Slovak society, where power, muscles and the right car lets everyone know who is the boss.