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How Understanding Foreign Cultures

Amplify’d from www.openforum.com
How Understanding Foreign Cultures Can Help You Advance

If you plan to live, work, or do business with other cultures, it’s important to understand how they work. Here’s a crash course in culture politics.

Elementary Foreign Culture

Nearly every business is global in some respect, which makes cultural understanding all the more important. Nearly all U. S. companies either sell to, buy from, or employ people internationally. How much do you know about foreign cultures?

  • “Heaven” in Europe is when the Germans are the Engineers, the British are the Police, the French are the Cooks, the Swiss are the Administrators and the Italians are the Lovers.
  • “Hell” in Europe is when the British are the Cooks, the Germans are the Police, the French are the Engineers, the Swiss are the Lovers, and the Italians are the Administrators.

When I began working with Asia, someone explained the competitive difference between Koreans and Japanese. If one Japanese competes with one Korean, the Korean will win; if a team of Japanese compete with a team of Koreans, the Japanese will win. The point was that the powerful culture of consensus in Japan created more competitive teams—whereas the Koreans developed stronger individual competitors.

Nobody characterized the Chinese in those days, except to tell me that there was not “one China”, but several and even the languages reflected that. I was also told that in American terms, “long term” meant in the next few years, and in Asian terms, “long term” meant in the next few centuries.

Corporate Culture

The culture of a foreign country is not the only culture you must understand. There are different cultures in companies, and in different parts of the U.S. Understanding this is also important.

Of all the people who must understand the culture, the top executive is arguably the most critical one. CEO turnover in the U. S. runs about 15 percent per year, a surprisingly high number. Virtually all of these CEOs were accomplished, successful executives when they were hired. So why do that many of them fail?

Culture mismatch is a major reason, says Nat Stoddard of Crenshaw Associates. Nat studied this phenomenon and explains it in his book, The Right Leader—Finding Executives who Fit. Put an autocratic CEO in a company that was built by a collaborative leader and trouble will start on day one. Mostly it will be key employees leaving as fast as they can. When vice-versa is the case, the people wait to be told what to do, while the leader waits, assuming they will collaborate to decide what to do — very little will get done.

Democratic Culture/Freedom

A great story illustrating a total cultural misunderstanding was told by an American lawyer and Army Reservist, Craig Trebilcock in his book One Weekend A Month. Craig was part of a group of reservists assigned to help the Iraqi people rebuild civic and legal structures after the “shock & awe” stage of the Iraq War.

He had a surprising revelation in a meeting with a group of Iraqi Judges, while trying to explain how they could now rule on matters as they saw fit, according to their interpretation of Iraqi law. They were frightened and incredulous, which they explained to Craig this way: “How can know what to decide with no one to tell us what to decide?” They had never experienced a culture other than Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship—in which judges were ordered what to decide. The concept of freely made decisions was totally inconceivable.

No matter how competent you are, no matter how experienced you are, until you understand the culture in which you are operating, living or simply participating, you are in many ways, a rank novice. That means, whenever you find yourself in a new place, a new setting, a new job or a new country, take time to learn about the culture. You’ll be glad you did. 

Read more at www.openforum.com


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