In the last year I’ve done business in India, China, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. This is year nine of this kind of global activity for me. I’ve taken a lot of flights and spent less time than ever at home and it hasn’t been easy. So apart from what I achieved for business, what have I learned about cross-cultural communication?
1) A little background knowledge goes a long way
I’ve always been interested in world history, but I’m not great at remembering dates which rather scuppers any pretentions I had of becoming a mine of historical information like my grandfather. So even if I’ve read a pile of books on the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, It will remain rather fuzzy in my head. But the fact is that knowing a little about the history of the country you are doing business in goes a long way.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to mug up on all the facts, but at least make the effort to read the country’s Wikipedia page. The idea is not to use this information to pretend you know about the country, but more to stop you looking like an idiot when you didn’t realize Nicaragua’s links to Venezuela, or the influence your country has had on the one you are visiting. Think about someone making basic mistakes about your country, are you really going to want to do business with them afterwards?
2) Curiosity and interest gets you even further than facts
Having said that facts will help, basic curiosity goes a lot further. This can be dangerous ground, which is why you need to have done the your research first. You need to avoid any line of questioning which could be seen as negative until you have built sufficient rapport with your host. Put yourself in their shoes, they will be well aware of any negative issues, highlighting them is not going to help.
So getting off the plane in Mumbai and commenting on visible child poverty is not a good start, where commenting on the positive changes in the country brought about by economic growth, will bring you around to the same topic (and a whole load of other interesting ones) in a positive way where your host can be proud of steps forward the country has made.
If you are visiting a country where the taxi drivers speak a language you do, you can always test the suitability of your line of questioning on them. It’s clearly not the same audience as the Managing Director of the company you are meeting with, but their response will give you an interesting side to the story.
In some countries just having the curiosity after a long day of meetings to leave the hotel and look around can be fascinating and teach you a lot about the country. Malls in Saudi Arabia immediately look different as all women browse dressed in the obligatory black abayas and shops have to display signs proclaiming themselves as family shops or otherwise, while mannequins in clothing ship windows have no heads. If you trying to sell your product there, these little experiences can have a big influence on your chances of success. Of course a little curiosity will also make your trip a whole lot more interesting.
3) Never think you know how someone will react based on his or her nationality
It is worth finding out what the national stereotypes are along with the cross-cultural communication stuff about high and low context cultures (how people do deals), or how negotiations tend to run in different countries, but once you have this information, try not to let it influence how you read the person or people you have in front of you.
Personally I find it really annoying when people who don’t know me assume that I will react in a way that is typical for a Brit (whatever that way is), so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the same is true for other nationalities. Nevertheless, it’s a hard balance to achieve: respect for the cultural differences vs. over generalization. For example, I met some of the strongest women, I’ve ever had the chance to speak to, in Saudi Arabia wearing the Niqab (complete face cover): a total contrast to the preconceptions we may have.
When I was teaching in Shanghai in November I probably missed out on learning a whole load more about China through making this mistake. Often as a visiting teacher to an MBA you socialize one evening with the students, however, because the class seemed quiet and respectful compared with a more boisterous European classroom and we had been told that this was typical, we decided not to arrange such a meet until the last day. During this lunch we got to know some amazing people from all over China and beyond, all with fascinating stories and experiences, very open to sharing them. Talking with my co-teacher after the course, our biggest regret was not spending more time with them outside of class, something that would also have added value to the class.
4) Always accept local hospitality (especially food)
I ate giant snail in a bar in Nigeria and my life is better for it. A few years ago, in Kagoshima at the very bottom of Japan, a group of after-work drinkers introduced me to the local delicacies and even today I have no idea what I ate. In India I’ve been offered drinks at a wedding I wasn’t officially invited to and had an amazing time. I’ve eaten a sheep’s head with rice with the Bedouins in the Jordanian dessert, Jellyfish hot-pot in Beijing and tasty caterpillars in the Congo.
It’s not a competition, and you don’t have to eat everything, but trying things other humans are eating, especially when it’s a local delicacy will get you far. Sometimes there is risk involved in accepting local hospitality of any kind but usually it is minimal, especially if you are in a business or semi-business situation. Still as always when travelling weigh up the potential risks and then decide. Remember, the connection (and possibly respect) gained by trying something unusual to you, but typical to the locals far outweighs any slight disgust you may feel at something strange.
5) In the end we are not that different.
It’s clear that there are cultural differences in our world, even in our countries and cities, and that is exactly what makes things interesting, but more than differences, there are similarities. Sports and (especially) football is a great unifier, my knowledge of the sport is limited, but often when someone finds out I’m based in Barcelona, a conversation about Barça’s latest achievements ensues. Looking for those similarities without belittling the (sometimes major) differences is the key to cross-cultural communication.
Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the country in question or working with people from there, you’ll never fully understand it, but the good news is that no one expects you to. Your counterpart will normally be attempting to avoid the cross-cultural communication faux pas he/she has been warned about for your culture and will be equally aware of whether she should bow her head, shake hands or kiss on both cheeks. Essentially, if you are there for business, you both have clear objectives and motivations the cross-cultural part is more about establishing mutual respect and trust on which to build a business relationship than anything else.