11 January 2013

Common Sense About Culture

In recent years, I’ve been asked many times by people to explain to them exactly what we mean by “cross-cultural training”.  In all that time my standard reply hasn’t changed, and the knowing smiles and nods of recognition confirm this is something most people have experienced at first hand in their business careers!   Put very simply – “it’s one thing to be able to speak Mandarin – it’s another thing altogether to know how your Chinese counterpart is thinking.”

Cross-cultural training is all about the latter, and in this, the first of a series of blogs, Barry Tomalin, world-leading cultural consultant and author on cross-cultural issues, reminds us, among other things, that being culturally aware is about more than just etiquette.



We more or less know how things work where we live. Even if we don’t know in detail, we usually know where to find the answers. The problems come when we work internationally.

We don’t know how that works and even if we think we do, we are often unpleasantly surprised. Abroad is different. Different values, different customs and different ways of communicating and behaving. In business, this can lead to project problems, delays, increased costs and even outright failure.

Statistics suggest that up to 60% and more of international projects fail due to lack of planning for language and cultural differences. 

If this is so, what can we do about it?  As one of our clients frequently says, “if you think training is expensive – try ignorance.”  Here are seven pieces of common sense advice.

First, we need to recognise that one size DOESN’T fit all. Your way ISN’T the highway.

Second, we can try and UNDERSTAND the business community we’re dealing with and how to get the best results.  Training seminars and workshops are the best shortcut to doing this and will help avoid all kinds of unnecessary problems for those going on overseas assignments – and the huge costs associated with those. So if you’re planning to move your business to Spain, on top of the Spanish language courses which you might have booked, you will also need to understand the Latin culture and way of thinking.

Third, we need to recognise that our attitudes to other cultural groups are often a matter of PERCEPTION – not reality; i.e. it’s not about what you are like but what I think you are like, and that can be a recipe for failure and lost business opportunity when dealing with our foreign counterparts.  As a result, our cultural view is often a mixture of received opinions, clichés and historical stereotypes.  A small investment in cross-cultural training for teams and individuals could result in multiple returns if this were addressed at the outset of an international project or assignment.

Fourth, culture looks too COMPLICATED – it isn’t. The problem in dealing with new overseas clients, colleagues and providers is knowing what to look for, and breaking down approaches to cross-cultural communication in easily assimilated information and interactions that employees can benefit from in a short time frame.

Fifth, cultural difference is ABOUT MORE THAN ETIQUETTE. Most international executives worry about how not to cause offence – but successful cross-cultural communication is about more than memorising a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’.  Yes, following prescribed behaviours and social signals is important, but it won’t tell you enough about how your foreign counterpart approaches meetings, negotiations, and other decision-making processes.  To reiterate the words of one client above, ignorance is far more expensive than training.

Sixth, we need to look at different indicators for understanding international business. What are these indicators? There are three; business expectations, business communication and management style. What do we mean by these indicators?

Business expectations

What do we expect from our business partners, a good personal relationship or efficient business operation with delivery on time, on budget and on specification? All of it, you’ll probably answer but not everyone thinks that way. For many countries performance is a result of relationships, not the other way round. As a Korean colleague pointed out, ‘ Build the relationship and business will follow as day follows night.’

‘Build the relationship and the business will follow.’

Business communication

How do communication styles differ and how do we avoid misunderstandings? If I am emotional and let my feelings show I may appear unreliable to some Asian colleagues. However, in Latin America showing my human side may be the key to getting the business. Just one of the six paradigms of communication you need to understand when doing business internationally. At the same time, Spanish language lessons will complement your understanding of the Spanish culture.

Business English

You’ll probably negotiate in English but do you know that most overseas business people find it much harder to understand native speakers than other non-native users of English. How do you adapt your use of English to overseas needs without sounding patronising? Let us look at a practical example: You are a British company and wish to expand to Spain. Combining cultural training with Spanish language lessons will put you in the unique position of understanding how their mind works by comparing semantics with cultural idiosyncrasies.

‘Overseas business people find it much harder to understand native speakers than other non-native users of English.’

Management style

How do you adapt to dealing with different levels of decision making, tolerance of delay, and variations in business organisation and teamwork? Do you even know what those differences are for each market you deal with and how you need to adapt?

Seventh, learn how to adapt. Obviously, both sides must learn to adapt to each other, but it’s often you who has to take the first step. Luckily, small changes in behaviour on your part can achieve big changes on the other side. It’s a rule of thumb but it works. Be prepared to take the first small step.

As Simon said to me when I last met with him at SIMON & SIMON’s offices to plan our activities for 2013, “Big doors open on small hinges.”  Wise words indeed…

To find out more about SIMON & SIMON’s range of cultural training courses, and how these could benefit your organisation click here – or call us now, on 020 7821 0999


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