The Centrality of Culture

Barbara West | Director of Training | Culture Works

The Centrality of Culture

At Culture Works we have more than 10 years’ experience working with companies and individuals to facilitate their understanding of the cultural aspects of doing business, both at home and abroad.

We assist in improving intercultural communication, developing intercultural competence, depersonalising the frustration of cultural differences, fostering, maintaining and deepening relationships with others, managing expectations and getting on with the business of international and intercultural business.

Probably the most important intercultural difference Australians experience both overseas and with people who weren’t raised and educated in Australia is the fairly radical orientation to hierarchy and equality in this country. This is not to say Australia is an equal society! Far from it. However, in the vast majority of the world, position or status are an important and overtly demonstrated aspect of most human relationships. For example, the use of Professor and Doctor, Mrs., Mr. and a host of other titles, even ma’am and sir, is expected and even required in many professional contexts in order to show respect. Conversely, in Australia, position and status must be quietly communicated, if at all, in order to maintain smooth, collegial work relationships. Even the boss must be seen as ‘one of the team’ and willing to participate in friendly (often mildly insulting) banter, Friday drinks, and other social events. Similarly, if I need my North American, South African, Asian or European assistant to do something for me, say I need photocopies, I need to state quite plainly: “Please make these copies, now.” However, in Australia, the need to covertly convey hierarchical status requires much more indirect language: “When you have time, could you make these copies for me? It’s very important. The meeting is coming up.” If I had said all that to my more hierarchical assistant, they wouldn’t make the copies! They’d have heard: “When you have time…” and assumed the task wasn’t important enough to bother with yet.

As a result of these cultural values differences, many people who relocate to Australia for work are experienced in this country as bossy, pushy and rude. Conversely, Australians overseas are often experienced as overly casual and informal, unable to take directions and disrespectful. Neither of these sets of judgements is accurate from the others’ point of view, but without taking culture into account, a jump to judgement frequently trumps the response: ‘Interesting cultural difference, what’s the other person’s intention?’

Understanding how our behaviours arise from our conscious belief systems, and how these belief systems are further based on an unconscious pattern of cultural values orientations, is one of the first steps to achieving successful, non-judgmental interactions with those who differ from ourselves. Another important piece of this intercultural puzzle is coming to grips with the important truth that understanding a person’s words may not mean you grasp any of their meaning. If they are delivering their message in high context language, in which ‘the point’ may be delivered through stories, metaphor or even in contradiction to the words used, your own expectation for low context, word-focused communication may lead you to miss ‘the point’ entirely.

These cultural values and communication style differences are evident to some degree in almost every workplace in Australia, but the ‘interesting cultural differences’ are multiplied several thousand times when you begin the process of expanding your brand overseas. Our first piece of advice for this situation is to begin with the systemic aspects of your offshore site. In many regions of the world, it just isn’t enough to understand your market niche. You need to learn as much as you can about the history as well as the political, social, economic and legal systems of your site. Do as much preparation as you think humanly possible in terms of research and training. And then do some more.

Many companies prepare themselves fully for the finance, sales, marketing, logistics, supply chain, etc. sides of their overseas business experience, but fail (or struggle) anyway. Having never thought to learn a few words of the local language or find out about local holidays, customs and history these companies are perceived in many parts of the world as trying to continue the arrogant, colonial relationships of the past. This perception, regardless of your intentions, is one sure way of making your overseas expansion much more difficult than it need be, if not impossible. So, do your research, or pay someone who is an expert in this area to do it for you, and talk to people who have experienced living and working in that area. Learn a few words of the local language, even if your partners, agents or networks all speak English or you will be using a translator.

The second kind of learning process that success requires you to undertake to prepare yourself for working and/or trading overseas requires becoming familiar with the more cognitive aspects of your own and your partners’ cultures – the operating systems that silently power overt systems and processes. Make sure you are clear about the communication and negotiation styles favoured by everyone who will participate in your overseas expansion processes, including yourself. Take the time to discover the relative importance of hierarchy, orientation to time and degree of formality of everyone involved as well. Understanding the logic frameworks that underlie each side’s conscious belief systems and overt behaviours may seem like an impossible task. But discussing the cultural context of your new venture with an expert is just as important as discussing the tax structure. Would you make this move without talking to accountants and lawyers? The same is true of your cultural consultant.

For many, the ramifications of not doing so are disastrous. For example, the former US energy giant Enron’s mid-90’s foray into the Indian market with local subsidiary Dabhol Power Company was ruinous because of the very different cultural expectations for the length and nature of the contract negotiations. On the US side, Enron executives were concerned with time frames and getting the contract signed as quickly as possible. On the Indian side, the Maharashtra state government came under intense criticism from its own people for the haste with which it entered the deal and the perception that local interests had been ignored, sold or simply left unprotected. The deal was ultimately cancelled because of these Indian concerns. The lesson, of course, is that the typical Western interest in speed and Enron’s negotiators’ inability to adapt to the cultural expectations of their Indian partners cost the company millions, if not more.

While Enron and Dabhol’s negotiators clearly differed on their cultural values orientations, they may also have found that their common language did not mean ease of communication, or even any form of communication at all. We frequently work with clients who begin the process of overseas expansion standing by the belief that their overseas partners’, brokers’ or translators’ ability to speak English means that they do not need to prepare for extremely different communication styles. The lucky ones learn before it’s too late that this is often not the case. The differences between the linear and direct styles of communication favoured in the West and the circular and indirect styles favoured in much of Asia are enormous and can lead to significant frustration on both sides. In addition, Westerners tend to be much more idea-focused in their communication than many Asians, including those from the subcontinent, who favour a more person-focused, face-saving communication style. All of these differences lead Westerners to ask Yes-No questions and to expect ‘honest’ or ‘true’ answers…and when they hear ‘Yes’ … plus a story explaining why the answer is really ‘No’ … they walk away frustrated that their Asian partner is ‘lying’ to them. This interaction is equally frustrating on the other side. Having clearly communicated with a story that the answer is ‘No’, the Asian partner is left wondering why their Western partner isn’t listening, or perhaps is too childish to understand polite business communication.

One way to avoid the difficulties associated with both these cultural values and communication style differences is to use local mediators, informants, partners and/or brokers whenever possible. No matter how comfortable you are with the local language and culture, you cannot beat the experience of local knowledge and the goodwill you will gain from this association. And remember that local really means local, not just national. There are vast differences between doing business in different regions of the USA, China, Japan, Germany, the UK and most other countries. Bringing a Texan with you to negotiate a deal in New York or Los Angeles may be as disadvantageous to you as doing the deal yourself. The differences between Tokyo and Osaka can be as distinct as those between Melbourne and London. In addition, getting some training in both hearing and using different communication styles may be able to ease a world of pain. An investment of a few thousand dollars in training can often lead to millions of dollars (or more) in profit and goodwill later on.

In conclusion, focusing on the intercultural aspects of your business should not be seen as a ‘nice’ addition you take on in order to tick a diversity training box or to help your staff or customers who are different from you. They should be seen as central to the financial success of your brand, both at home and abroad.

Barbara West, PhD. has spent more than 20 years lecturing, writing and consulting in intercultural communications. She is currently the Director of Training at Culture Works and an instructor at both the University of Melbourne and CQU-Melbourne. Prior to co-founding Culture Works, Barbara was an Associate Professor of International Studies in California. She has published four books and dozens of articles.

Barbara West