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February 28, 2019

Better Understanding Across Borders

Rachel Salaman

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For all the talk of a "global business environment," it’s still easy to feel wrong-footed when you travel abroad for work. When the extent of the cultural difference is unclear, how do you know what behavior is appropriate and what isn't?

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Dean Foster: "It is the organization’s responsibility to develop cultural competency across the board."

Dean Foster has made it his life’s work to smooth out cross-cultural misunderstandings. Because no matter how much technology connects us, the business of doing business will always have a local flavor.

Global Workplace

“Today, there are probably many more people who are working in similar ways all around the world than there ever have been. But this level of globalized behavior is very, very thin,” he says.

“It’s ubiquitous, it’s wide, but it doesn’t go very deep. If you’re in Kuwait, every day you’re going to be behaving in work in a very Kuwaiti way. If you’re in China, you’re having to do business in a Chinese way, and if you’re in France, it’ll be in a French way. That’s the day-to-day reality.”

Indeed, Foster believes that far from reducing cultural differences, globalization has brought them “to the forefront, because we’re having to confront them to a degree that we’ve never had to before.”

Communication Matters

And understanding each other better is essential. Not only to avoid offending foreign colleagues – both inside and outside our organizations – but also because miscommunication can have a deep impact.

“From a practical perspective, in terms of doing day-to-day business, you’re not going to get the deal if you don’t understand the culture and your competition does,” Foster asserts, in our Expert Interview podcast.

Broader Culture

While that makes sense, it’s a daunting prospect. Foster says it’s useful to think of this on two levels. First is the “superficial level,” which is concerned with etiquette and protocol.

"I say ‘superficial’ but I don’t mean to minimize its importance. It’s the stuff that you see,” he explains. “You step off the plane and suddenly you realize, I need to understand how to greet people."

"Do I give them three kisses or two kisses? Do I bow? Do I touch? When I go out and socialize with people, are we eating with chopsticks? Are we eating with our fingers? All of these things are important, but they’re superficial in the sense that, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can see, very quickly, what the rules are.”

Unseen Culture

The second level concerns the unseen aspects of culture, and these can be harder to grasp, Foster believes.

“How do people think about issues? What are the negotiation style differences that I should expect and plan for, so that I can come up with some strategies that work in this culture? What are the conflict resolution styles? What are the expectations of how men and women are supposed to relate with each other in business – or older and younger people?"

“These kinds of hidden, unspoken cultural orientations are the things that trip us up day to day. And they get expressed through all sorts of verbal and nonverbal communications, which we may or may not understand. So that complicates the picture even further.”

Get Expert

The solution is to “get expert at all of it,” he says, acknowledging that it’s no easy task. Many authors, including Foster himself, have written books aimed at people doing business in different parts of the world.

In addition, organizations can write their own code of conduct, so employees are better equipped to work well with people from different cultures, both externally and within global teams.

“This means helping all members on the team to understand that these cultural differences exist,” Foster says. “What are they? Where might they reveal themselves? It is the organization’s responsibility to develop a certain level of cultural competency, across the board. And I think those organizations that are committed to doing so are the ones that will succeed in the 21st century.”

Foster believes there are a few universal principles we can all use when interacting with other cultures: "Be humble. Say less, listen more. Don’t assume that you’re as similar as you think you are, and remember you are a guest when you’re abroad, in someone else’s home."

Communicating in Writing

In this audio clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Foster offers some advice on written communication, with tips on writing emails to people from a different culture.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.

What are your tips for communicating across cultures? Join the discussion below!

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