Communication across cultures usually only identifies ‘sameness’, such as appearance, manners, customs and etiquette. However most of what defines cultures as different is unseen and includes world views, beliefs, ethics, and morals. Good communication skills in the global era involve a sound understanding of the strengths that lie in ‘differentness’.
Most people do not recognise culture as a risk factor. Cultural differences are, however, very real and can pose a genuine hazard if not managed correctly. How we handle this challenge can make the difference between success and failure in cross-cultural exchanges – whether interpersonal, in business or between governments.
Potential ‘misunderstandings’ can be avoided by becoming skilled bridge builders. In doing so, we can even achieve a competitive edge in the transnational environment through an understanding of the diverse customs, values and expectations of our culturally unique counterparts.
There are three basic principles involved in managing across cultures. These are initially, to accept differences, then to adapt to them and, finally, to adopt new practices in the way we do things.
Cultural differences are like an iceberg. What we see is only about ten per cent of cultural characteristics (or those things that we all share in-common). This sometimes leads people to incorrectly assume that we are all the same. This inevitably leads to a defensive position rather than to a proactive strategy. Most differences in value systems are unseen. Differences in beliefs, perceptions, thought processes, time orientation, gender roles, rituals, conflict resolution, hero and leadership images and even basic learning styles cannot be easily brushed aside. These areas of distinctiveness must be investigated through a process of empathy, sincerity and mutual tolerance.
The manner of accepting these differences involves six steps:
Personalise knowledge and perceptions
Practice role flexibility
Demonstrate reciprocal concern
Tolerate ambiguity (perhaps the most problematic)
The second principle is to adapt. The best way to do this is to devise processes that facilitate friendship-building. Western societies place an emphasis on individualism. Much of the rest of the world, despite considerable diversity, are communal societies where the appearance of ‘equality of outcome’ is more important than individual rights. Westerners are largely linear in our thinking. We tend to be ‘obsessed’ with goals, targets and ends. The nations of South East and North Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America do not necessarily have a liner view of time and social space but are rather more concerned with networking, relationship-building and process. To become effective cross-cultural communicators we have to train ourselves to operate in an environment where the individual is not the penultimate social unit.
The third basic principle is to adopt the strengths of other cultures and integrate them into our own commercial practices. A good example of where this approach has been successful is Singapore. Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporean business people discovered that even a country without any natural resources could prosper if they applied global logic: that is, if they could integrate both Eastern and Western practices into managing capital markets and trade.
Singapore has successfully integrated two different approaches to social organisation. These are the ‘rule of man’, or codes of behaviour, with a millennium old system of British jurisprudence called the ‘rule of law’. Because of the meshing of these two value systems, Singapore has been able to successfully compete in both Asian and European/North American markets. They have done this by building on the social strengths inherent in collectivism with aspects of Western rationalism: commercial law, policy predictability and bureaucratic transparency. For Westerners, the greatest challenge is to adapt our energy and initiative to the network-based relationship building skills of our cultural counterparts.
Cultural Consulting is available to craft individual strategies to achieve such outcomes.