For every car GM sold in China in 2004, it sold 10 in the United States. By 2009, sales in China equaled those in the US. Rapid economic growth in Brazil, Indonesia, China, and India will add a billion new consumers clamoring for goods and services from around the world over the next decade. With increasing frequency, professionals from one country are interacting with customers and colleagues from other countries.
Grappling with different languages, cultural barriers, and legal-regulatory differences presents formidable challenges. There are more than 20,000 cultures and 3,000 languages on planet earth, and learning about every one of them is simply impossible. The good news is that, while learning foreign languages is helpful, it is not necessary to study hundreds of cultures or languages to work effectively in multicultural environments. Extensive international business experience and research provide a solid starting point for successfully navigating global change. Critical knowledge and skills required for effectively working across cultures include self-awareness, using a cultural-general approach to understand key cultural differences, and translating this knowledge and awareness into cross cultural competence.
Individuals can increase self-awareness by exploring their preferences in communication style, responses to conflict, decision-making style, and influencing behavior. Personality/behavioral preference inventories, feedback from others, and simply taking time to reflect on personal preferences can help individuals understand strengths, likes and dislikes. A heightened understanding of preferences can also help individuals understand their reactions to others who are different. Finally, it can help individuals become more aware of how their preferred behaviors may impact others’ perceptions of and reactions to their behavior.
Learning about Culture
A “cultural general” approach focuses on understanding differences and similarities using key cultural dimensions. Cultures differ on how individuals interpret the “normal” range of acceptable behavior in a number of important areas: the individual’s relationship to authority figures, the relative importance of time and punctuality, the level of directness, the appropriate physical social distance and the proper amount of emotional expressiveness.
Power-distance, for example is one dimension that can strongly impact communication. Individuals from higher power distance countries such as China or Brazil tend to defer to figures of authority much more frequently than individuals from lower power-distance countries such as Sweden and the US. Swedes and US Americans expect high levels of equality in the workplace. To illustrate these differences, frustration mounted when a group of leaders from a low power distance country attributed the slow decision-making process of their counterparts from a high power distance country as a “deceitful bargaining strategy” or “indecisiveness” stemming from incompetence.
This created a negative emotional rift between the two teams. From the perspective of the high power distance individuals, bypassing their supervisors to make decisions without first informing and conferring with their leaders would be inappropriate and disrespectful. Had either party realized that the divide arose from cultural differences, they could have discussed and found ways to bridge those differences.
It is critical to understand one’s own culture in the context of these dimensions. This heightened self-awareness permits comparisons and contrasts with other cultures and in turn, helps to dramatically shorten an individual’s cultural learning curve. However, understanding cultural differences such as the one described above is not sufficient: applying the knowledge to respond effectively to frustrating, emotionally charged cultural situations is the greatest challenge.
Building Cross Cultural Competence
The final step is to apply self-awareness and cultural knowledge when working with individuals from other cultures. Focusing on a developing the following can help build cross cultural competence, especially when differences arise.
Prepare; Stop, look, listen; Pause, think, respond (or defer responding).
- Prepare in advance by investigating key cultural differences with your colleague for the dimensions mentioned above.
- Stop talking and pay attention not only to the words being used, but also to body language, pace and tone.
- Look at the individual, but avoid staring. There are instances where indirect eye contact may be appropriate. You should be able to get a handle on appropriate amount of eye contact if you have attended to the “Learning about Culture” section above.
- Listen intently.
- Pause and think. Before responding, reflect on what you heard and how it may have impacted you emotionally. A normal human tendency at this point is to interpret what was said and how it was said from the context of the receiver’s own culture. Attributions are made about the speaker’s intent, also based on the receiver’s culture. These culturally-based attributions are often wrong. This is an opportunity to integrate knowledge gained earlier from heightened self-awareness and understanding cultural dimensions.
- Respond (or defer responding).
While reading books on culture that magically transform their readers into effective intercultural communicators would be wonderful, like learning a language, dictionaries and textbooks are helpful, but they are no substitute for actual practice and real-world intercultural experience.
Curtis D. Curry, MA International Studies, MBA is president of global training and coaching consultancy QLI. Mr. Curry has trained thousands of global leaders from North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia for major international companies such as Unilever, Roche, Honeywell, Colgate, Ricoh and Kraft. He serves as the steering committee co-chair for Florida Tech’s Institute for Cross Cultural Management where he also teaches global leadership and cross cultural competence (3C)