I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.
Tip #1: Time After Time
Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.
Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…
Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!
Get 10 More Tips, Free!
We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:
Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India
Look For More Tips…
Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will 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
We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.
Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.
Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].
Low / High Context Misunderstandings
For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that thisperson would never do business with the other person.
It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.
Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words
Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.
This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.
High context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” In fact, those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that actually mean “no.” But, it’s about saving face, and learning how to communicate across cultures will mean avoiding nasty misunderstandings.
High context communication is about using many cues to send a message, not just words. So timing, when was a message sent, was there a delay, that can be very important. Stories are a way of sending a message without directly criticizing.
The Wrong High Context Message
Here’s a true story: There’s a Texan who went to Thailand to set up a new business venture, and he met his Thai business partner when he arrived. Towards the end of his trip, the Texan was really missing out on important communication cues. It all came to a head in the final day, when he thinks everything is going great and he’s expecting to sign a contract. He slaps the table and he pulls out a couple of cigars, offers one to his Thai host, and he puts his feet up on the table. Well, his Thai host stands up, marches right out of the room, and our Texan never hears from him again.
A number of different things happened there. One, the thing that really put it over the edge, is that putting your feet up on a desk, and showing the soles of your feet to somebody in Thailand is terribly, terribly offensive.
High Context Means “Rich,” “Subtle”
So, high context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” Those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that mean “no.”
But, it’s about saving face. Specifically, it’s about saving your face. Your partner isn’t going to tell you that your idea is bad. Instead their going to circuitously say: This isn’t working for us right now; why don’t you take the time to come back, later, with a better answer? When you have an Asian business partner, and they’re telling you a story, it’s probably a good idea to look for the hidden meanings in that story.
This kind of subtle communication is often completely lost on Westernized cultures, meaning the United States, Canada, many European cultures, because those cultures focus on low context communication, which is all about just using words.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
[quote style=”boxed”]IF YOU ARE OFFERED A CIGARETTE you must accept it, even if you don’t smoke, otherwise the other person will lose face.
Giving and receiving gifts throughout Asia is steeped in ritual, respect, and status. It is easy for more direct cultures to mistake these important ceremonies and status gestures as meaningless, and thereby give offense.[/quote]
It’s true that in today’s modern world, Westerners can get away with many things that a native Easterner might not. For example, the idea that you must accept a cigarette even if you don’t smoke is becoming a bit dated. To top it off, many Western cultures have fewer and fewer smokers. So, is it really a big deal?
Cultural Rituals Are Still Important
The problem is really knowing how important a ritual is. There’s a pretty good chance that a young, Westernized Chinese businessman offering you a cigarette is doing just that — offering a cigarette in case you would like one. But there’s no way to know this until you have built a strong relationship, and there’s no way to build a strong relationship if you inadvertently give offense.
The old saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” applies. That means taking the time to pick up on cultural cues, and demonstrate a genuine attempt to share some cultural experiences.
Most foreigners are inevitably going to make a few social faux pas. But the ones that go “over and above,” putting forth a genuine effort to understand culture and being perceptive to differences around them will stand out. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort. Awareness is key — awareness of your own cultural biases and customs, and a sensitivity to what’s going on around you.
In this particular case, having an appreciation for the concept of “good face” is important (in Asia “face” is a bankable notion, a literal statement of a person’s value). Likewise, appreciating how important relationship building is, and being aware of the long history and rituals around gift giving helps. With this background information, and a willingness to be vigilant and pick up on anything that is different from your own culture, you can put forward that genuine effort.
Tips For Westerners
When going anywhere in Asia, it’s best to be prepared. Know that gift giving has an important place, and be prepared to reciprocate. Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to your host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.
Look for subtle cues during conversation. Unlike in the West, there is much more going on than the spoken word. Most Middle-Eastern and Eastern cultures are very expressive without relying on words, so cues such as silence, gestures, and especially story telling will be important. If a story is being told, there is probably a reason behind it.
Also, don’t be rushed. Keep the mantra, “all things in due time” in your head. Relationship building takes time, and rushing through it will seem insincere.
Tips For Easterners
When visiting the West, don’t expect gifts — the business culture of the United States, in particular, discourages gift giving. In many situations, gifts are considered bribes and can even be illegal, except in a few rare cases (such as birthdays or special gift exchanges where everyone participates and receives a gift of equal value).
When it comes to communication, expect very direct questions and challenges. Your Western hosts will likely expect you to respond in kind, since honesty and “cutting to the chase” (not wasting time by being sensitive) are both valued traits. What will pass for politeness in the West will look like startling rudeness to you.
Finally, expect your Western host to be very structured when it comes to time. Meetings will usually have an agenda, and little time will be set aside for building a relationship. It’s generally assumed that business and personal relationships are, for the most part, separate. As such, business relationships will seem much more shallow than you are used to. Adding depth to these relationships may be hard, as your host could seem resistant. Keep in mind this is not a personal offense, it’s just the way business is done in the West.
Check back frequently for more “sagacity” tips. I’ll be picking one each week to blog about, along with other regular topics.
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.
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.
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.