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Building cultural understanding and export relationships

Building export relationships goes beyond just making sales. Joost Thissen, director of the Cultural Resources Centre, offers tips on developing cross-cultural relationships for successful export sales.

Over the past years I have heard people discussing the importance of cultural differences quoting the expression: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. What bothers me about this belief is that it implies that we have not evolved one bit since the Roman empire with regard to dealing with cultural differences. It’s as if we still eat lying down, have gladiators sending in lions to amuse the people and have Spartacus around to serve us!
Am I too hard on the Romans? Well, let’s try to put things into context by looking at Japan. In most Western books that detail simplistic “Do’s and Don’ts” when dealing with the Japanese, foreigners are actually taught about the in’s and out’s of the Japanese formal bowing ritual within the business context. I challenge you check this “Do and Don’t” with your Japanese contacts, as I am sure that they will confirm that most foreigners don’t actually know, when and how to use the formal bow appropriately. How could they? It is a ritualised greeting tradition that takes years to master correctly – i.e. without offending anyone.
In a training session for a Japanese organisation the Japanese management executive actually expressed relief that the formal bow by non-Japanese is gradually disappearing. Thus for foreigners, ‘Doing as the Japanese do’ does not always work and it highlights yet again the complex nature of cultural differences. Just imagine a cultural custom from your home country that other people start to mimic ‘G’day mate’.  In Singapore I have also heard quite a lot of foreigners using the ‘Can do-la’ way of talking to show that they have ‘been around’ and speak a bit of ‘Singlish’. To do that it may seem to some Singaporeans as if you are trying to make them look like uneducated people with a poor understanding of British English (when in fact Singlish is a proper language!). Communicating across cultures often causes a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding. It is also well documented that humour does not travel very well. If we look at for example how an English native speaker uses humour as a way of introduction – breaking the ice, to lighten up, to hide feelings – then the Japanese and Koreans will probably prefer to use the apology instead and the Chinese will probably prefer to introduce their team members first with appropriate status and respect taken into account. To a lot of Asian cultures, jokes are often seen as inappropriate in the business environment as it does not pay sufficient respect to the matter at hand. Jokes can be seen as unprofessional, childish and are often misunderstood.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do means that when visiting a new place, you should try to do as the locals do. The culturally appropriate response would be to develop an understanding about the cultural nuances first, try to get your head and heart around what it is that makes the people tick. You might find that your copying their behaviour is not as effective as the ‘Do’s and Don’ts” books said. Once you have an idea about the cultural values, local customs, rules, etiquette and behaviour, check that you understand correctly what they mean before you start to use them. This might actually prove that you have really practiced what Cultural competence preaches: Using your head (knowledge and strategies), using your body (actions and behaviour) and using your heart (drive and motivation) appropriately to improve your business contacts and to enhance your communication with the new culture. Copying, mimicking or pretending to be a local might actually offend and send an inappropriate message.
While we are busy preparing ourselves by utilising culturally inappropriate behaviour as shown in movies (“Lost in Translation” was not actually that accurate or funny), and being misguided by simplistic do’s and don’ts, we could be wasting valuable time. My advice would be, ‘When in Rome … , do as the culturally competent do”. That is, come highly motivated, soundly informed, and well behaved. The head, body, and heart approach always makes the difference between an effective business relationship and an embarrassing or costly mistake.

—Joost Thissen is director of the Cultural Resources Centre (info@cultureresourcecentre.com.au)



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