Those who are married to a spouse from another culture likely understand the depth of our personal cultural roots. My wife is Indian, and I identify myself as being a very culturally aware person (particularly when it comes to South Asian and South American culture). Even so, my formal education and early professional career was firmly rooted in the United States. The management techniques and cultural habits I learned early on were profoundly Western, and very profoundly didn’t work in the East. Despite my eventual career and cultural focus abroad, we still run into cultural obstacles — situations come up that completely take us by surprise in the face of Indian friends and family. Management techniques or cultural norms that I subconsciously still apply can end up offending a visiting guest in our United States home, because we are perceived as an Indian family.
The Global Culture
At the same time, there are of course positive cultural exchanges. When my father-in-law was selling his dental practice, I helped negotiate the terms of the sale between buyer and seller, both being Indian. Indian culture prevented my father-in-law from suggesting a non-refundable option on the purchase transaction — something that we take for granted in the United States. Such an idea would offend an Indian because it questions the value and strength of their relationship, whether it be personal or professional. But, by presenting it as something that would protect my father-in-law’s personal desires to secure his retirement, it was possible to offer the idea in such a way that the buyer would not be offended. Instead, the buyer was able to save face by contributing to the stability of his elder’s future.
It takes some exposure to foreign culture before we can begin to appreciate the complexity, depth, and impact a culture has on our day-to-day business affairs. When speaking on the subject, I usually lead by asking my audience, “Who here has lived in India or China for, say, at least a month, on business?” Understanding my audience is important to delivering an engaging talk, but there’s another reason I ask the question. There’s a distinction between visiting a country or vacationing there, and actually trying to conduct business. In most cases, my audience will have a handful of world travelers, but very few world business people.
Visiting Versus Working There
Last year, I visited Barcelona, Spain for a few weeks on vacation. The trip was thoroughly enjoyable as my wife and I explored new restaurants, chatted with a few locals, and saw the sights. But all the time, business was the furthest thing from my mind — understanding the local culture extended little further than finding out what the best restaurants had on the menu, taking in a local theatre troop’s performance, and figuring out where the best diving opportunities where.
While we were there, we also dropped in to visit a friend of the family that also happens to be a business associate. Even though it was a social visit, the mood and understanding shifted from a superficial appreciation of someone else’s culture, to an actual understanding of lifestyle and what the business environment was like. We found that in our conversation it was easier to truly understand each other, because we had worked together in the past. We had some common ground to share, and we had some different experiences that were unique to our business world. We weren’t just “going with the flow” anymore, but actually participating in a more meaningful way. We wanted to better understand each other, and appreciate each others’ differences.
People that have traveled abroad for business have an advantage over those of us that haven’t. They can appreciate the depth of the cultural differences that we’ll experience. They understand just how deep these cultural differences extend into how we do business, how we negotiate, and what we think of as acceptable in the business world and how we conduct business.
As my wife and I traveled in Barcelona and visited our friend, we experienced some of these cultural differences — but the differences encountered within Western countries (an American culture meeting a Spanish culture) is trivial when compared to the East-meets-West experience. Near East, Middle East, and Far East cultures are dramatically different from Western culture, and building real, effective International relationships with Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, and China requires much more preparation.
In 2001, Jim O’Niell of Goldman Sachs predicted the importance these emerging economies would play on the global landscape in his paper, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.”1 The term “BRIC” caught on, becoming a widely used synonym for Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Today, we use “BRIC” in day-to-day conversation as we contemplate how the West and the East are become a tightly intertwined, global economic landscape.
1 Building Better Global Economic BRICs, Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs, 2001.