It’s a sociological fact; the world is shrinking. Thanks to the relative ease of travel our opportunities for an intercultural experience are growing exponentially. In the business world, this is certainly the case. Our global economy depends upon intercontinental transactions to exist. While the concept of a multinational company isn’t new, the frequency of the multinational operation has proven itself to be the trend of the future.
Of course, business is not just about economics. At its heart, business is about building mutually beneficial relationships. This can’t be done without excellent communication skills. While many of us in the business world are naturally good communicators, the waters muddy when we’re communicating with someone from a different culture than our own. Language is an obvious barrier, but developing intercultural competence is more complex than learning a new language.
A good definition of intercultural competence is the ability to communicate with someone from another culture without causing offense or feeling offended over misunderstandings and value differences. I stress the concept “value differences” because a diversity of cultures ultimately is a diversity of values.
Consider the story of the German manager whose company transferred him to the Mumbai office for two years to improve its productivity. The new manager repeatedly scheduled 9:00 a.m. meetings for his staff. His Indian employees usually arrived at these meeting five to ten minutes late. The German manager was furious! Dictated by German culture, this manager prizes punctuality above all else. His Indian employees prize flexibility and relationships more. They may not arrive promptly to a meeting, but will do everything to make their new superior feel welcome. If the manager refuses to look beyond his cultural habits to discover why the differences occur he will surely experience a frustrating two years.
Developing intercultural competence is an exercise in adaptation. The saying, “When in Rome” implies mimicking the culture you’re visiting to show respect. But what if the “Roman” occasionally comes to you? It’s smart business to adapt oneself to another’s cultural habits. While adaptation is logical in theory, in practice it’s a challenge. We’re often “rubbed the wrong way” by an intercultural experience because we don’t understand why a colleague acts as he does. It’s essential to remember that cultural values are informed by geography, economics, religion, and historical events.
In the United States, the events of 9/11 shifted our cultural values considerably. Once a nation treasuring individual rights first, we now treasure group security over the individual’s right to privacy. The dialogue has shifted, our laws have shifted and ultimately our group behaviors exhibit the shift. International visitors experience our culture quite differently today than they would have ten years ago. The immigrant or visitor who examines the psychological impact of 9/11 on our culture will find it easier to adapt. This is the secret to intercultural competence; exploring the reasons why people behave as they do and make allowances for the difference. Whether you find yourself in a diverse culture here or abroad, this practice will raise your level of intercultural competence and your opportunity for success.
This post is a reprint of an earlier article written for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.