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Building bridges between cultures for greater prosperity

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The embracing of culture in all its diversity ‘as a resource rather than a threat’ is essential for responding to the demands of a global market economy, for reaping the full benefit of cross-border alliances, and for enhancing organizational learning.

– Schneider and Barsoux: Managing Across Cultures

From local to global

Globalisation, modern technology and the integration of world markets all mean that businesses are increasingly finding themselves operating across many diverse cultural environments. On a practical level, communication happens through email, telephone, video conference or face-to-face, whether home or abroad. However you communicate with business contacts overseas, though, there is always the potential for challenges arising from cultural differences. Even within our own countries, populations are becoming more culturally diverse and this in itself necessitates a greater social awareness. The need for businesses to be able to overcome intercultural differences and communication issues has grown exponentially.

The differences can be staggering – and sometimes difficult to anticipate. Body language, clothing, eating, speaking, physical contact and personal space can all be subject to particular cultural norms. Some cultures may prefer to greet each other with hugs; some prefer handshakes, or even no contact at all. It can be difficult to exude confidence when you don’t know the rules of the etiquette game.

Cards on the table

Even something as apparently innocuous as the manner in which we exchange business cards, which we do in the West without much ceremony, has the potential to raise eyebrows elsewhere. In China and Japan, for example, business cards are hugely important, as is the way in which they are given and received. It is polite to ensure your cards are printed on one side with the relevant local language; and cards are also expected to be of a very high quality and kept in pristine, spotless condition. With the emphasis in both Japan and China on status, you must be sure to include your title and any pertinent facts about your company, such as the length of time it has been in business, if it is long-established. In both countries, cards should be received with two hands, examined and commented upon, before being carefully put away somewhere safe (not your back pocket!).

In short, treat their business card with the same respect as you would treat the person. Breaking any of these customs will not necessarily halt a business deal. But adhering to them can go a long way to creating the right atmosphere for mutually beneficial discussions to take place.

Three key attitudes for understanding

All in all, there are three main key points to consider when operating in a cross-cultural setting

The first two point will go a long way to improving the way you are perceived, even if you should make the occasional mistake. Businesses tend to focus – in a typically business-like manner – on the third point. They hope that all they need to do to check the boxes is to research the key differences between cultures and learn the appropriate responses to all foreseeable issues. While this can certainly help identify potential problems and develop some understanding, it will not assist with ad hoc situations and general behaviour.

If we listen to words merely, and give them our own habitual values, we are bound to go astray.

– Freya Stark: The Journey’s Echo

Instead, you must develop the ability to adapt and adjust your behaviour in the appropriate manner as new situations arise; which many people can find difficult, frustrating or even embarrassing. This can lead to a dispiriting performance, negative experiences and even total avoidance of cross-cultural situations borne from the fear of the unknown.

Adapt and survive

…the essence of culture is not what is visible on the surface. It is the shared ways groups of people understand and interpret the world. These differing interpretations that cultures give to their environment are critical influences on interactions between working and managing across cultures- 

Hoecklin: Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies For Competitive Advantage

There is no easy solution to learning this adaptability – it takes patience and diligence. For some, it may come naturally but others will have to practise with an open mind. When encountering problems, it helps to use a solution-focused mind set. Do you simply lack the correct knowledge? Or is the issue caused by a lack of understanding or empathy? Using the three main key points identified above, put yourself in real situations with as little pressure as possible. Allow yourself to make mistakes, learn and therefore adapt. Look for the meaning behind the words and behaviours, as this can often lead to a deeper appreciation that makes adapting one’s own behaviour easier. It’s useful to keep in mind that both parties in a cross-cultural exchange are in the same boat; that tolerance and respect are often reciprocated and are always mutually beneficial.

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