10 Tips For Stress-Free International Travel

Ten Tips For Stress-Free International Travel is now available for free download. This second book in the series is a concise companion for international executives, expats, and frequent travelers. Not only loaded with 10 fantastic tips for making sure your next overseas trip goes smoothly, it also features a bonus chapter on device security courtesy of Dr. Stahl, President of Citadel Information Group. Be sure to travel both safely, and in comfort.

Tip #1: Time “Off”

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10 Tips For Stress-Free International Travel (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans work more than just about anyone else in the world. In fact, Americans prioritize work above just about everything else: Family, friends, sometimes even holidays. It’s not unusual to ask employees to accommodate work activities, even if it impinges on a holiday. It’s a stark contrast to many other country cultures. The typical American gets two or three weeks of vacation, compared to six, eight, and sometimes more in other countries. These cultures place family and experiencing life above work in their priorities, and quite often their approach to work reflects this different attitude…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Look For More Tips…

Look for more guides as they go to press! They’ll be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

I’m delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed creating them.

Download All The Things!

Be sure to visit the downloads page and download all the things…

This Is Horrible Management Advice

I’ve been seeing a lot of management advice lately — hopefully it’s a sign that the U.S. economy is starting to boom again, and projects are taking off. But the problem is, most of the advice I’m seeing is really horrible — at least, if you’re working anywhere outside of America.

Western Management Is… Western

Western management theory works great if you’re managing a Western team. That means a team of people that are completely and entirely Western in terms of their culture and expectations.

For example, in this recent article, Lisa Evans reports that employers are “turning away from the traditional management style of hierarchies.” This is absolutely correct — in the United States. But applying this advice elsewhere in the world could be a huge mistake, especially in the highly organized and role-driven cultures throughout the East. Much of what Ms. Evans writes is sound advice across cultures. She writes that, “Recognizing these basic human needs can create a workforce of employees who are committed to working for their leader because of who they are and how they are treated,” a management principle that is a universal truth. But, as with most Western-oriented management writers, she also adds advice that will fall flat across Asia: “Empowering employees is one of the best ways to get commitment.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well in countries and cultures where explicit instruction is expected. In India, for instance, delegating and empowering your team usually backfires. The culture of India, one that produces great technical minds, is still focused on rote training and clear task delegation.

Adapt Your Management To Fit Culture

Don’t be scared of looking for advice online, though. There’s a lot of great advice — but consider the author and their audience. If the article seems to “American,” look for advice from a more International source. One great example is Donna Flynn’s recent article on Managing A Team Across 5 Time Zones. She writes that it’s important to share the burden of communication in a multinational team: “Several months ago we started a rotating meeting schedule.  Every month, each team member now has one evening, one mid-day, and one early morning meeting, and misses one meeting that falls in the middle of their night.  No team member is expected to attend a team meeting between 10 pm and 7 am.”

Ms. Flynn adds, “No tool can replace being together in the same room.  I bring my globally dispersed team together twice a year for workshops,” advice that I heartily agree with. It’s one of the key success strategies that I teach to our clients.

So choose your source. There are even products that focus on overly “Americanized” management techniques. One is The Time Timer. It’s a clock, big, bold, and designed to sit on a conference table and get people to stay focused on the agenda. The product pitch resonates with Americans: “You’re in a meeting, there are only two minutes left, and you’ve been talking around and around without even getting into the most important topic. There was no sense of urgency. And now it’s too late.”

But there’s a problem. This agenda-driven mentality is too Western. It only works in those Western cultures that prize time above all else — such as the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, and a handful of other European countries. But deploy this strategy in South America, and your partners will think you don’t care about getting to know them. Try it in most of Asia, and you’ll be labelled impatient and opportunistic, and they’ll think you don’t want to build a real business relationship. Most cultures around the world do not value time like Americans do. In fact, the most important business cultural preference for them: Relationships. That means taking time to build a relationship, and letting the meeting run long. Long meetings are prized because it’s a sign that everyone is getting to know each other. Short meetings send a different signal: “I don’t value this relationship very highly.”

The most important thing to keep in mind: Be aware of the business culture you are working with. Make sure that the management style you apply is going to be the right style for that culture, and for your team.

What Is “Saving Face” In Other Cultures?

What does “saving face” really mean? Westerners tend to think “face” means preserving one’s reputation… but that’s not right. It’s particularly important in high-context cultures, including most of Asia and the Middle East, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group outweigh the interests of the individual.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International and I wanted to speak briefly about “what is saving face.” Face is a collectivist notion. It’s something that applies in many Eastern cultures and as such it’s an extremely foreign idea to Western culture.

Misunderstanding “Saving Face”

So, here’s an example of how not understanding face can go wrong with Western and Eastern interaction. Let’s say you are a Western Manager, applying western management theory. So, if one person does a particularly good job, the natural thing to do is to reward that person, to call them out and tell them they did a better job, possibly give them a raise or some kind of a reward within the firm.

But, in Asian society, this actually sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is saying that the individual failed in their responsibility, to their group, to their fellow employees, because that person did not show those individuals how to perform well. So, the net result is you tell one person that they didn’t do a good job, and you tell the entire group that they also failed to do a good job, in this respect. It backfires terribly when Western managers do that with Eastern cultures. And this is a great example on why it is so important to really understand what face is whenever you are doing business with the East or the Middle East.

What is Face?

It was first defined by David Ho, a social scientist working in Hong Kong. He basically defines saving face as saying that face is lost when an individual, or someone who is closely related or connected to that individual, act in a way that fails to meet the social obligations that are set up for that person. In other words, if they don’t meet their social responsibility with family, with work, with their friends, then they loose face.

In Asia and the Middle East, having face is a very bankable notion. It is a literal translation, or a literal representation, of your status in society, of your reputation and your abilities to fulfill your obligation within that social network. Because collectivist societies are so tightly integrated and tightly social, there is only one face. Social, work, family, it’s all integrated into a single representation of who that person is. That means that your face at work and your face at home can be damaged in the same way.

If you’d like to see another take on saving face, check out this short video (the bit on saving face is in the latter half of the video).

Most Common Global Communication Mistakes

Getting past communication problems is one of the first challenges that comes up in global relationship building. In the best case, our cultural mistakes can be amusing, but more often they can give offense and cost us money. Here are few common mistakes to avoid when making your first foray abroad.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We coach our clients on five different business cultural preferences that apply around the globe, in different cultures and in different business settings, and each one of these are extremely important. But today, I want to talk about common communication mistakes that people make when going from one culture to another in a business environment.

The first one is assuming that business culture and business practices around the world are more or less the same as they are at home. So for example, westerners tend to be very direct. They get right to the point, they want to dive into business and start negotiating right away. But many Eastern cultures tend to be more conservative. They want to build a relationship first, they want to get to know you, before they decide whether or not they should be doing business with you. So, this is just one example of how an initial meeting, when these two cultures come together, can result in a clash.

Another mistake can be putting too much attention just on the words that have been exchanged. So, what I mean by that is, Westerners might take a discussion and turn it into a contract, and look to that contract as the embodiment of the relationship. What was agreed and signed is how business should be conducted. But this doesn’t really work too well throughout most of the world. The Middle East, Asia, South America — it’s the relationship that’s more important. The contract tends to be a guideline, an initiation of that relationship. But over time the expectation is that the relationship will rule over the contract. Mutual health, mutual well being, is more important. So, what was agreed should change and this can result in a conflict where Westerners tend to be perceived as rigid, whereas other cultures are looking at them wondering, “Well, why aren’t you concerned about how well off we are together, about our future together?”

And the third point I want to mention is: Not looking deeper than just the communication and the words that are being exchanged. Multinational business and cross-cultural leadership are very complicated, because it brings a lot of different business cultural preferences into play. For example, how do different cultures think about time — is the schedule going to rule all? Or it is more important to take your time and make the right decisions and think about the long term?

It’s different from one individual to another. So, when I’m talking about East versus West, these are generalizations and it’s important to realize that generalizations don’t apply to individuals. You’ll meet Easterners that are extremely westernized and you’ll meet Westerners that are extremely easternized. But the important thing to understand is that every company has it’s own culture and just trying to push two companies together usually results in problems.

Genuine Relationships Need Context

People are likely to back away from relationships that don’t seem honest or straightforward. But cultural differences can easily skew perceptions. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture is completely unacceptable in another.

Deeply relationship-driven people (for example, from India and China) have extensive networks from which to draw context. They know the abilities, skills, and idiosyncrasies of people they meet because of the network. Connections almost invariably come through their “in group,” their family or close business contacts. As a result, relationships extend beyond the individual, to other group members and even their family. This strong, deeply rooted network helps minimize misunderstandings.

But cross cultural attempts to build relationships often get into trouble. This is especially true today, with so many business reaching out globally.

The Collectivist-Individualist Relationship Gap

Individualist cultures can thrive on transient relationships. In America, Canada, or England, deep, introspective relationships often evolve after business has been established. This is completely opposite most Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures, where a strong relationship is needed before considering business.

Easterners are accustomed to dealing with a complex in-group relationship. They expect the support of their network, of their connections, and of the extended connections between groups, to foster reliable introductions. Where information is lacking, the network will likely provide it. Where context is lacking, the network can fill it in.

When the network is missing, missteps are made. Both parties end up wondering about curious behaviors, unintelligible rituals, and questionable practices of their newfound contact.

First Impressions Are Everything

Take the story of Sameer Kshirsagar Reddy, an Indian business development manager based in Bangalore. To try to appeal to his new American clients, Sameer adopts what he thinks will be a friendly, Americanized version of his name, “Sam K.” Following the Indian tradition of using his last name first, his new LinkedIn profile is under the name “Reddy S. K.,” while his Indian friends know him on Facebook as “Sameer S. K.,” and his Skype name is “sam_kr” (mostly because that’s what was available). Armed with his new (and old) online identities, Sameer begins marketing.

Unfortunately, Sameer always runs into the same problem: After getting to know a new American prospect and exchanging a few emails, the prospects stop corresponding.

The Western executives he is trying to reach out to aren’t very interested in working with “Sam K.,” an individual trying to mass-market IT services by email. To make matters worse, his prospects are confused by all his different names, such as “Sameer S. K.” and “Reddy S. K.” Are these the same people? Or is there some misunderstanding? Or worse, is this some sort of a scam? At the very least, it’s a nightmare to keep straight and frankly, probably not worth the effort — at least, so goes the American customer’s thinking.

Sam’s attempts to emulate the American culture instead alienates his clients, and raises questions in their mind about Sam’s sincerity.

Consistency Versus Context

Americans in particular want to see consistency. It helps to compensate for the lack of information from a strong in-group network, but it’s also part of the business culture. They expect a professional profile and a consistent representation of who the individual is. Americans almost unerringly use the same name for all professional contacts. Business history, whether on LinkedIn or Facebook, supports this same consistency, and most often business networks and personal networks are kept strictly separate. The idea of creating a new LinkedIn profile to start marketing is counter-intuitive. A new profile means erasing the past and starting fresh, as an inexperienced first-time employee. Why would someone want to do that?

Cultures that have extensive contextual networks to support their efforts need to adapt when transitioning to individualist cultures. At the same time, Western, individualist cultures will benefit from understanding the intricacies of relationship-oriented cultures. Both cultures will benefit by taking the time to learn the other’s business cultural preferences and practices.

Recovering From The Holidays & 10 Tips To Ease Business Travel

Getting back into the swing of things after a major holiday break or personal vacation can be a challenge. It’s January 14 already. Two weeks have flown by and I’m already behind writing this article.

It’s not just about getting back to work and getting caught up, though. For International business people, the rest of the world runs on a different schedule — and that means business kept right on moving while you were out. As I was enjoying Christmas and the New Year break here in the United States, many of my colleagues have been sending emails and patiently awaiting my return to the office. My to-do list on January 6, my first day back, was so long I didn’t even know where to begin.

Business Travel And The Chinese New Year

I remember a client’s story about his first trip to China. Bill had been talking with his manufacturing partner about visiting after the New Year’s holiday for some time. Bill always had at least three calls every week with his partner, most often talking with the production floor manager to get updates regarding progress, issues with the design process, or resolve any questions that came up. Bill’s role on these calls was to make decisions. Most often he spoke with Dewei, who ran the design and production operation. When Bill brought up a visit, Dewei was thrilled to know that he would be coming and made it clear Bill would be very welcome. He said he would take care of all the details, so after New Year’s break Bill decided it was high time to see his operation in China. He sent a note to Dewei suggesting a trip near the end of January. Dewei’s reply was enthusiastic, telling Bill it would be a great time to see China because he would be just in time for the Chinese New Year celebration. Dewei promised to give Bill a grand tour and make him feel very much at home.

He’d never been to China before, and didn’t really occur to Bill that Chinese culture would be dramatically different from American culture. Of course he expected the obvious differences: Language, food, and customs. But business was business around the world right?

Bill arrived in China the evening of Tuesday, January 27, 2009. The Chinese New Year varies from year to year, but in 2009 it started on January 26.

Dewei had arranged for a car to pick Bill up at the airport, and true to his word had made sure all the details were in order. His hotel was nicely appointed, and the hotel manager personally greeted him. Bill was looking forward to a productive week touring his factory, looking over designs, and seeing the final preparations as the factory tooled up for production.

His trip was not going to go as planned.

Even if you live and work there, you can never be entirely sure you understand. It is best to assume that you do not. — Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Company

Dewei met Bill on Wednesday afternoon and announced plans to see the city. Bill was eager to see the factory, but Dewei told him it was closed for the New Year celebration. They would absolutely visit it, but there would be no point in seeing it before next Monday since all the employees were taking vacation: It was the Chinese New Year! Nobody would be working that week, and hardly anyone would be coming to the office on Monday either. The Chinese New Year is very much like Christmas and New Year’s combined in the United States. Bill’s visit to China became a cultural tour, spending the first three days and a weekend seeing the city. There was no visit to the factory until the following week, and even then only a skeleton crew showed up, mostly to meet with Bill. His agenda was completely changed, and Bill ended up having two New Year’s holidays that year. Fortunately, he was able to extend his trip and stay an extra week. As things got rolling the week after the holiday, Bill was finally able to get to know his factory.

In the long run, Bill learned a few important lessons, but he also built a strong relationship with his team in China. Spending that extra week over the holiday meant meeting the family and friends of his partner’s team. It meant getting to know everyone a little bit better, and it meant learning some small bit of Chinese culture. All of this built a stronger relationship, and it was time well invested. At the time, of course, Bill was aghast that nobody had told him he shouldn’t come until after the Chinese New Year. Much like in America, everything shuts down for the holiday, and people don’t get any work done for about two weeks. A good rule of thumb if you’re planning on visiting China is to wait at least a couple of weeks after the New Year’s holiday before visiting — and of course, check your calendar to see when it falls! This year, the Chinese New Year is on January 31. That means the first week of February, nobody’s going to be working. For two weeks afterwards, people may be on vacation, or they may be coming back to work and looking at all that email that piled up from their International partners. As they’re catching up, you’ll be waiting patiently to get back to business.

Learn To Be Flexible

Bill’s trip could easily have been a disaster, but fortunately, Bill was an easy going fellow who really cared about his employees and his partner. I’ve met plenty of Americans that are too focused on schedule and would have been absolutely furious to have had their’s interrupted. Planning your International visit is going to take some extra thought and preparation.

For example, why didn’t Dewei tell Bill it was a bad time of year to visit? I’ve written about power distance and communication quite a bit in the past (and will write much more). In this particular situation, it simply wasn’t appropriate for Dewei to correct Bill. That would have been presumptuous and Dewei’s part, and from his point of view, would probably have meant a loss of face for Bill — who is, after all, his American customer and the CEO of the company. When the CEO tells you he’s coming to visit, you say, “Wonderful, we can’t wait for you to arrive!”

10 Tips For International Business Travel

Here are a few more tips that you might not think of when planning your International business trip:

  1. Get an International calendar and be sure to coordinate around foreign holidays. If you don’t know what a holiday is, find out. some might just mean a few people won’t come in to work, but others could call for a two-week long shutdown!
  2. Look into cell phone use a few week’s ahead of time. You may need to rent a tri-band phone, or get a disposable phone on your arrival. It may not be that easy, either. On my last trip to India, it took an entire afternoon to set up an account, largely because of laws intended to limit terrorist access to data and cell networks.
  3. Plan to take more time than you think you will need. Most countries, especially Eastern and collectivist cultures, will move at a different pace. You’ll want to take time to build relationships, get to know people, and accommodate a different pace at the office. You can’t have the mentality that it’s a quick “get in and out” visit.
  4. Find out if your credit card will work while abroad, and take plenty of cash (in a well protected place). Depending on where you visit, credit cards may not be widely accepted. Also, it’s probably worth upgrading to that Platinum American Express or getting a Capital One business card, just to save the 2.7% foreign currency conversion rates (there are no conversion fees on either card).
  5. While it may seem like a lot of trouble to be interviewed by Homeland Security, getting a Global Entry pass really makes travel go more smoothly in most International airports.
  6. Consider sending your bags ahead, and confirming their arrival at the hotel before you leave. This can save you a huge headache, and makes the trip a little bit less stressful.
  7. Rely on your International partner to help you find good accommodations, set up your travel itinerary, and provide you with a car, but also be sure to explain what you are looking for. “Good” accommodations in one country may not be what you’re expecting! Knowing that you will be taken care of while visiting takes a lot off your mind.
  8. Don’t forget about insurance. Check with your medical coverage to see if they provide services and coverage where you’re going. If not, look into a short term travelers medical policy from a provider such as HTH Travel Insurance, Medex International, or Worldwide Assistance. Also check the CDC site before you go, and make sure you have appropriate medication and shots (such as anti-malaria tablets when visiting Asia, and remember most inoculations are taken 3 weeks before travel).
  9. Plan a day after arrival to recover from jet lag, and don’t forget it happens coming home too. You won’t do anyone any good if you keep falling asleep at the office.
  10. In my last post on travel and International relationships, I mentioned the work week. Be sure you anticipate the local work schedule. It might not be Monday through Friday!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year!

Tips For Avoiding Culture Shock Pitfalls

In the first part of this article, Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas, I explored how immersion in a foreign culture can affect you, your team, and your organization. In this second part of the article I’ll introduce strategies for dealing with culture shock.

There are different ways to deal with culture shock. Early attempts at cultural migration lacked the insights we have today. For example, during British rule in India, it was commonplace for the British (as well as other visiting expatriates) to collectively distance themselves from local culture. In essence, the “shocked” individuals stuck together in small communities, socialized in clubs, and endlessly discussed how dreadful the locals were. This approach proved a very poor one when it came to cultural assimilation. It’s likely to fare no better today.

Preparing To Handle Culture Shock

Studying is one way we prepare ourselves for the adventure and challenge of an intercultural encounter. Simply reading this blog, or picking up a relevant book, provides an excellent avenue to begin such preparations. In a way, research like this is a premeditated defense against the anxiety that is likely to manifest itself. However, reading can only take one so far. What we retain after reading is far less than what we retain experientially. But more important, the value of face to face cultural experience far exceeds what we gain from reading.

More successful strategies at improving trans-cultural competence revolve around developing a healthy curiosity regarding local culture. Total immersion in a culture is by far the best way to experience its values and become attuned to the differences between it and your own culture. One of the best immersion techniques is learning the language of the other culture. While fluency is certainly an excellent goal, depending on the society, it’s often unnecessary. For instance, most professionals throughout India will have a functioning, if not fluent, capability in English. English is, today, the official language of India and more Indians speak English than any other language, with exception of Hindi. Today, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, excluding the UK. But it’s important to remember that of the 125 million English speaking Indians, that means there are well over 1 billion that don’t speak English.

Even without fluency  in a local language, you will find that the effort you put into developing any language proficiency will be appreciated by your hosts. The goodwill of being able to speak a few phrases in common shows your good intentions. It demonstrates a willingness to learn local ways. Your hosts will often be much more forgiving of cultural mistakes, and may be flattered to see you trying hard to get to know them. Learning a local language is also an excellent way to develop a stronger sense of culture. Most language programs today will convey stories, history, and a sense of culture as part of the language course.

Avoiding the negatives of culture shock doesn’t fall entirely on the individual. Acculturation is an important topic for businesses to be aware of too. Consider the damage caused by poorly acclimatized people in the business environment: Lost sales opportunities, alienated partners, even entire lost markets. Knowing the potential dangers means limiting potential problems. That means sending well-prepared envoys, or at least minimizing cases where an incompetent or insensitive individual stays abroad, doing more harm than good.

According to Trompenaars, around twenty percent of expatriate managers suffer from severe culture shock and fail to adapt.1 Within this twenty percent figure, there are two specific, identified segments: Five percent develop such negative feelings that the local culture is actually despised, a feeling that usually takes hold after about six months abroad. These expatriates cannot function, and will demonstrate the worst negative symptoms of culture shock. Of the remaining fifteen percent, cultural adaptation never takes place. They follow in the footsteps of the colonial British around turn of the century India: Poor work will be blamed on living conditions, the ineptitude of the locals, and a backward culture. This group will identify other malcontents and avoid local culture. Both of these groups will only damage International relationships for their employers, and should return home as soon as possible. Of the remaining eighty percent, about half will function adequately, but essentially miss home and constantly look forward to returning. The remaining 40 percent of expatriates will integrate smoothly into the local culture. Performance improves, as does moral and overall productivity. This group is strengthened by their experience abroad, and will likely grow professionally because of it. Most often this group seeks out a means to stay abroad longer, if not permanently. Often they will regret returning home when it is finally necessary.

Culture Shock When Returning Home

This is where many employers fail their employees. Upon returning home, the repatriated individual again goes through the acculturation curve. Many expatriates experience problems. Individuals that have successfully acclimatized to foreign culture will experience reverse culture shock at home. Those identified in the most successful 40 percentile will quite often seek to emigrate again. These individuals can negatively adjust to “home” culture.

Employers must be aware of the cultural transition employees go through. Most often, it is when the employee returns home that their company let’s them down by failing to anticipate some of the complexities of International work and the consequences of culture shock. The employee will experience re-acculturation, just as the employee went through euphoria, followed by negative feelings and anxiety, and stabilization abroad. Those feelings, including the negative ones, will repeat. Nancy Adler, Assistant Professor of Cultural Management at McGill University, studied the re-entry process of two hundred corporate and governmental employees returning to Canada after working overseas for an average of two years. Re-entry into the original culture was found to be more difficult than the move abroad.⁠2 It seems that culture shock is not a one-time event — it happens every time someone transitions from one culture to another. This can affect work performance, take a negative toll psychologically, and even affect home life.

It can easily be made worse by an employer or a Human Resources department that’s blind to the problem, treating the employee as if he or she had merely been on vacation. Management or HR departments that have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude risk alienating an employee by dismissing their hard work and achievements while away — a situation compounded if the cultural achievements are not recognized as well. Returning expatriates are often a goldmine of information for a business. Having them talk about their cultural experiences, the challenges, and the opportunities presented is rewarding for the individual. It’s also immensely educational for local staff, and often strategic for the business at hand.

Ethnocentrism

Just as the individual experiences an acculturation curve, so too do guest cultures. People exposed to foreign visitors also go through a similar psychological reaction. The first phase of this reaction is typically curiosity, during which the host is open to the visitor — much like the euphoria of the acculturation cycle. This gives way to the second phase of the reaction, ethnocentrism, in which the host begins to judge the visitor by the standards of their culture. Such an evaluation tends to be unfavorable: Visitors are seen to be rude, naive, distant, culturally backward. Often a belief that the visitor is less intelligent emerges. Repeated or long-term exposure to foreign visitors can cause ethnocentrism to give way to polycentrism, an understanding that people of varied cultures should be measured by different standards. In other words, the view that one’s own corner of the world may not, in fact, be the center of the universe takes hold.

In When Cultures Collide, Richard Lewis very aptly wrote, “We can achieve a good understanding of our foreign counterparts only if we realize that our ‘cultural spectacles’ are coloring our view of them. What is the route to better understanding? To begin with, we need to examine the special features of our own culture.”⁠3

1 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.
2 Nancy Adler, Re-Entry: Managing Cross-Cultural Transitions, Group Organization Management September 1981 vol. 6 no. 3.
3 When Cultures Collide, Richard D. Lewis, Nicholas Brealey International.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.

The Changing Face of the U.S. Job Market

Official unemployment levels are down, showing fits and starts at improvement. Setting aside arguments about whether these figures are ignorant of the real picture, signs of improvement have taken root. Nevertheless job creation still isn’t what it should be, and the amount of time it takes find a lost job is hovering around a record of 35 weeks — longer in many cases. So, what’s the hold up?

Are we experiencing a jobless recovery, or facing something much more fundamental? Should we be challenging the assumption that job recovery will automatically follow on the heels of economic recession?

Historically job recovery has always followed times of recession. However, if we are facing new, fundamental shifts in the economy, history need not necessarily repeat itself. The changing economic landscape could be forcing the U.S. into a structural change, not a cyclical one.

This article originally appeared in 2011, but has been updated and reposted here as we move to our new system. We hope you find the revised article interesting. We feel that the changes to the U.S. and global economies discussed here are still very relevant, and just beginning to take root.

The Shifting Job Landscape

The influence of the global economy is undeniably bringing about changes that are both new and unanticipated. As information flows around the world instantly, new possibilities open up — particularly in markets that deal with intangible assets, such as intellectual property, market data, and ideas. Technology is combining with the global landscape, forever altering how we do our work, and what the end product of that work looks like. The result is a truly global work force, where our “office mates” could well be halfway around the world, where companies leverage 24-hour work cycles by spreading their staff around the globe, and formerly distant economies are suddenly right next door.

Combined with the effect of a global work force — in fact, fueled by that very force — comes the inevitable realization that the U.S. market is a small part of a much bigger system. Coca-Cola saw its revenue more than triple in Q4 of 2010, bringing in nearly 75% of its revenue from international markets while domestic growth lags at 7% compared with 11% internationally. At the same time, IBM has more workers outside the U.S. than inside it. As international barriers and distance continues to shrink, the U.S. will increasingly find itself a member of a global community — one with nearly 7 billion members, of which less than 5% live inside the country.

The influence of the global economy, technology, and developing globalization trends have combined to create a “megatrend,” a fundamental change in the nature of the job market. With massive numbers of workers available, and markets that dwarf the value of domestic markets, the U.S. must change its perceptions. We have to realize that the manufacturing jobs that have left the country aren’t coming back. Likewise, the global nature of information and intellectual property means we must adapt to a world in which global workforces play a part in domestic economics on a daily basis.

Surviving The Shift

U.S. businesses need to learn new tricks, and U.S. workers need to keep pace. The global economy is not tolerant of insular economies or attitudes. In contrast to shrinking distances, the consumer market is growing faster than ever before. We have to face that realization that companies such as Coca-Cola are seeing a world where domestic markets matter less than global ones.

To survive in this new landscape, the U.S. will need to strengthen its global position. This means a greater focus on education, not only to strengthen our domestic work forces’ position in the new economy, but to re-establish the U.S. as the preeminent source of higher education. Many countries have long regarded the U.S. as the best possible place to send their best and brightest for education, but that distinction has slipped in the past decade or two.

Having a strong education program won’t, by itself, solve our long-term concerns. As a whole, the U.S. needs to integrate into a global culture that represents this newly emerging market. Formerly, the U.S. has been notoriously insular. We are one of very few countries in the world where the educated speak only one language. Our appreciation for the arts, culture, and mannerisms of foreign people is poor, at best. As a people, U.S. citizens pay precious little attention to world politics. The effect is like that of a child raised without adequate social interaction. We don’t know how to play with the rest of the world, and are often perceived as ignorant of social and economic events. In the landscape of this shifting economy, we need to develop a better understanding for who our neighbors are, and fast.

This means a more educated professional work force, and business services that are more attuned to the needs and wants of a global people. Executives of the future will be expected to converse with global partners, understand the subtle nuances of international communication, and readily connect with counterparts in foreign countries. Americans without international skill sets and only one language to rely on will be left behind.

The Good News

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; Moody’s Analytics, 37.6% of forecast shares of newly created jobs in 2012 will demand a Bacholor’s degree or higher, up from less than 8% in 2010. Moody’s indicates that in 2011 the better educated will control 60.1% of all new jobs, but by 2015, the projection rises to 66.4% even after construction bounces back. According to Time (Where The Jobs Are, January 17, 2011), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s career services office reports that 7% more interviews were scheduled by companies on campus this past fall than the year before, a fact that seems to support Moody’s projections.

Time also reports that Gautam Godhwana, CEO of SimplyHired, is seeing dramatic signs of job market improvement. “Before the downturn happened, we had 5 million job openings. This dropped to 2.1 million job openings in the first months of 2009, and lo and behold, in the second half of 2009 the bottom fell out of the economy.” But he notes that the reverse is now happening, “In the last six months we’re back to 5 million jobs in our database. So there are some reasons to be optimistic.”

All of this seems to support the idea that the U.S. is beginning to perceive the need for change. The education market and professional services will do well in this climate. According to Moody’s, technology is leading the way. The strongest growth (defined by more hires combined with more job openings) will be in professional and business services, specifically, the technology sector. Network systems and data analysts, and professionals suited to global IT projects, are among the fastest growing sector after biomedical engineers. Bill Saporito, Time Magazine, writes:

And [the recovery] will favor companies that sell abroad rather than those that depend solely on domestic demand. “Any industry that is very focused on exports will do well,” says Nariman Behravesh, [chief economist for IHS Global Insight]. “Agriculture, aircraft, high tech.” He would include education in that segment, since so many foreign countries send their best and brightest here.

Education, professional services, and technology are the gateway into the new global economy. It will take time for the shift to take root, likely years before we find out if the U.S. can successfully discard outmoded ideas about where the jobs are. Until then, we still have record levels of unemployment to deal with, and a work force that needs to adapt to change.

But the U.S. still has a stable economy that is the world’s largest. It can handle short term unemployment and restructuring, provided that it stops treating the current change as temporary. Many jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and even technology are gone forever. The next step is to assess the new landscape and begin to change accordingly. We need to refocus our sights on superb education and technological leadership, where the U.S. was once undisputed leader. Likewise, cutting-edge infrastructure will be necessary to deliver on the promise of being a world leader once again. The U.S. has to change its perceptions — and until we do, we’ll keep playing catch-up.

How Is Business Culture Affecting Your Business?

A good friend of mine, Chris, told me this fantastic story about his first encounter with his parents-in-law — a story that really drives home the importance of business culture. But if the story is going to have any impact, you’ve got to know Chris a little better.

A Man Cooking In Turkey

Chris is a really smart, well-travelled guy. He’s also pretty straightforward and humble — here’s an example: He was giving me a tour of the new business incubator he was setting up and casually mentioned that he wanted to bring “his bear” in to the break room as part of the decor. I let it pass, not really giving it a second thought. It was some time later that I found out that Chris’ “bear” was in fact a stuffed, formerly live bear that he had personally hunted, killed, skinned, and subsequently ate. It was only then that I found out that bear meat is, apparently, the most delicious meat of all (I have never tried it myself).

Chris is a pretty interesting guy to be around, but not just because of the stories he tells. He’s got a lot of experiences and likes to share them in every way possible. His background was originally in technology, and later he turned this into a strong business sense. And, for this story to make sense, you have to know he also went to culinary school and is an accomplished chef.

So, back to Chris’ story about meeting his new parents-in-law.

Chris met his Middle Eastern wife in the United States, where they also got married. It was a few years into the marriage before an opportunity arose to visit Turkey, where his wife originated. Naturally, Chris and his wife planned to stay with family — doing anything else would have been an unthinkable affront.

After staying with his in-laws for a few days — and, all the while enjoying some incredible home cooked food — Chris wanted to do something nice in return for being welcomed into the family so openly. He had seen how the food was prepared, and with his background he had already learned how to prepare it (partly from training and partly from watching his mother-in-law cook). So, one day he went out to the local market, bought all of the groceries, spices, and meats needed to make a wonderful Turkish meal, and brought it home. Then, he set out to cook a delicious meal for the family, intending to surprise them with his cooking (and hard work) when everyone returned home.

Much to Chris’ surprise, his extended family was absolutely horrified by what he had done. None of the family would touch even a tiny morsel of the dinner he had prepared — in fact, his mother-in-law would not even enter the kitchen. When Chris tried to prepare a plate of food, all of the women left the room! They refused to even sit where they would see him eat the food!

Needless to say, it was quite a shock and disappointment.

GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.
GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.

His wife explained to him, quite simply, telling Chris, “You can’t do that here. You’re a man, in my family’s house, you can’t cook or even help in the kitchen! I know your food is delicious, but nobody will touch it. I will — I’m going to go hide behind the door in my room and eat it because I know it’ll be wonderful, but I can’t let anyone see me eat it!”

Chris had unwittingly fallen victim to culture — to a “social cultural preference.” He had done something taboo in the local culture. There was nothing Chris could do to change the situation. The local culture that dated back thousands of years was set in stone, and was not going to change for Chris’ sake.

Before going on, let me point out that Turkey is a country with great diversity. With over 70 million citizens, it’s bound to be that way! As with many countries, the larger cities tend to be more metropolitan and modern, while towns and villages may be a bit more traditional or old fashioned. Chris’ story is not, of course, indicative of every family culture in Turkey.

Culture, or Business Culture?

Just as every country and every region and every people have social cultural preferences, the corporate world has business cultural preferences. These preferences deal with things like how we communicate, how a subordinate demonstrates respect for a superior, even the way we manage time. These business cultural preferences are deeply ingrained. They can’t be taught, trained, or educated away — it’s not about knowledge, it’s about knowing how to act properly in a particular social environment. Culture is something we start to pick up as a child, and that includes the culture of business in our country.

Chris’ story applies to the business world just as much as the family environment. If you are doing business internationally, in any way, you’ll find this blog interesting. A lot of the content here comes from my book, Building Successful Multinational Business Relationships. My intention in writing the book is to create an awareness of business cultural preferences within your own environment. The most effective way to deal with a foreign culture is to understand our own preferences, and to recognize different preferences as we discover them in other people and other environments. This sensitivity allows us to identify how culture varies, how our preferences don’t match someone else’s preferences. With the right awareness, we can then take action to learn and adapt our behavior, and even our environment.

What Is Culture Really?

So, what is culture, really? The fact is, from our own perspective when talking about our own culture, it won’t sound like “culture” at all. It’s just the way things are.

If you’re American, you’ll believe that everyone has a right to free speech, and believe that anything else is a human rights violation. You’ll know that American football is a national past time of incredible proportion (and you may be surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t really care about it much). You’ll enjoy two or three weeks of vacation each year (if you’re lucky). You will get married for love and think the idea of an arranged marriage is outlandish. You would find it scandalous to have to bribe a government official, and would likely report it as a crime. While you don’t look forward to it, you do rely on a just and reasonably efficient court system. If you are late to an appointment you’ll mutter an excuse if you’re five minutes late, apologize profusely if you’re ten minutes late, and being an hour late would be unthinkable (and probably means you lost the job). When talking with someone you get uncomfortable if they get closer than two feet. After college you rarely go to someone else’s home, and doing so is an invitation-only event (especially if a meal is involved). You think that some foreigners don’t say what they mean, which is just exasperating. You’ll probably hate the idea of using the train system (unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the few cities that has a good one). You find a two-party political system natural. You expect the politicians of both parties to be responsive to business, strong on defense, and concerned with the middle class. You find parliamentary systems (such as Italy’s) inefficient and a little bit comic.

But an American in Turkey can be completely out of place, as we learned from Chris’ visit to his parents-in-law. If you’re Turkish, you know about the concept of freedom of speech but you probably wouldn’t dare talk about it too much. If you’re male, you are likely a futbol fanatic and you support one of the major Turkish teams (and you think it’s silly to use a word like “soccer”). You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. You expect to marry for love; but the marriage of your parents was very likely arranged by their families (arranged marriage does still take place, particularly in more rural areas). You won’t seriously expect to transact business, or deal with officials, without paying bribes. You dread the court system and know that if you had problems with a customer, landlord, or supplier, taking them to court would be an ordeal that could take months or years. If you are late for an appointment, you’ll mutter an excuse after 30 minutes, and an hour late is still tolerable. You can’t feel comfortable in a conversation if the other person is more than a foot away from you. If a guest drops by, you will gladly serve them tea. When you are negotiating, it’s natural to play convoluted games to get what you want — and in social situations, it’s improper to be too direct. You don’t understand how Americans can get by with a two party system, although “Socialist,” “democratic,” “nationalist,” “republican,” “populist,” “leftist,” and “rightist,” are just vague words for doing approximately the same thing. You think that the situation of the country is hopeless, that none of the countries problems will ever be solved.

This is a small sampling of “culture” at a very high level. This blog delves into business culture, a very specific area that has to do with how people interact and behave in a business context. We’ll examine five of the core business cultural preferences, and hopefully along the way learn how our own culture varies from “their” culture. Understanding this difference is crucial to anyone doing business internationally.

I believe strongly in the power of stories, and so throughout this blog (and my book) you’ll find both informative articles as well as stories. I’ve tried to find stories that express the perspective of a particular culture as it relates to a particular article — and whenever possible, I’ve presented two stories: One from a Western perspective and one from an Eastern perspective. I’ve found it most effective to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes,” a saying that has been traced back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Put another way: If two people of the same culture share their experiences abroad, they will likely reinforce each other’s point of view. On the other hand, if two people from different cultures share their experiences, it can be quite enlightening.

I hope you will find both the stories, and the specific knowledge of business cultural preferences, enlightening.