Bridging the Culture Gap
Being aware of cultural differences around the globe not only oils the wheels of your international relationships, it makes you a more effective manager, teammate, supplier, and customer.
During a recent visit to an office in China, I went to get a glass of water and noticed that the faucet had the customary blue and red markings to denote cold and hot water. Naturally, I chose the blue. But the water was warm, and I assumed the machine was faulty. Not so. The Chinese like to drink warm water. To an American, that is probably unappealing (akin to drinking warm beer in the United Kingdom), but that’s the custom.
And don’t be surprised if your business partners in China occasionally sleep in the office. It’s not outlandish to have a quick snooze after lunch.
Airline travel etiquette is another area where you might come across some surprises. In the United States, we disembark from planes in a semi-orderly fashion—one row at a time (except when you’re late for a connecting flight and try to snake your way through the line of passengers waiting to get off). In China and Europe, it’s more of a free-for-all and whoever pushes the hardest wins. There are different approaches to airport security, too, particularly when it comes to screening items such as belts, shoes, and electronic gadgetry.
Idiosyncrasies like these won’t make or break business deals, but knowing in advance what to expect helps you to assimilate—and can lower stress levels!
Some cultural attributes do have a more direct impact on your business dealings.
Consider, for example, the Chinese aversion to the word “no.” At first, it might seem gratifying that your colleagues or trading partners in China always seem to be in agreement with you. But, after a while, you’re probably going to realize that unqualified agreement can mask disagreement, and it’s important to know whether what you are proposing really does make sense to the other parties.
Asians tend not to react well to disagreements that are acted out in public, even when the differences are relatively mundane from an American or European perspective. This is especially true when individuals are singled out. An awareness of these sensibilities enables you to manage much more effectively. This is important in the logistics business where operations teams often span multiple countries, the environment is fast-paced, and teams are constantly addressing exceptions.
Dutch people tend to be brusque; they speak their minds and move on. Extreme frankness can be something of a jolt for an American who is accustomed to politically correct office dialogue. Again, advance knowledge of this characteristic can make your job as a manager or negotiator much easier.
Some cultures, notably in Asia, have rigid social orders that require a certain degree of deference to senior people. Paying due regard to these practices puts you in a favorable light and facilitates both social and business interactions.
Understanding local etiquette for business cards is also key. Keep in mind that how you accept, review, and handle a business card may show the level of respect you have for the other person depending on the country you are in. In the Middle East it’s important to accept the card with your right hand, as the left hand is reserved for personal hygiene. It is also a sign of respect and sincerity to place your right hand over your heart when gesturing in the Middle East.
There are more obvious challenges to prepare for, such as language differences in countries where there are many dialects; India is a notable example. In some countries, the language is so different that it can be almost impossible to read peoples’ reactions or moods when they are speaking.
Time zones and currency differences also have to be negotiated in today’s globalized business environment. When working as part of a global team, it is inevitable that during international conference calls some people join meetings when they should be sleeping or enjoying some family time. It’s important that managers respect team members’ personal time and try to maintain a healthy balance with their work schedules as much as possible.
Cultural awareness might be considered a “soft” skill in the business world, but in a field such as logistics that is international by nature, making an effort to be in tune with other cultures should be part of your professional repertoire.