Business Standard

Book Extract: Increasing cross-cultural awareness

Small gestures such as knowing how to greet or pronouncing names correctly can make a huge difference while managing today's cross-cultural teams

Swapnil Kamat 

In July 2007, Starbucks Coffee was banished from Beijing's Forbidden City after seven years in operation amid protests over the American chain's incongruity with traditional Chinese culture. The eviction campaign was led by Rui Chenggang, a popular national television news anchor, who argued that even though Starbucks had good quality stuff, it was still a symbol of America's low-class food culture.

Thousands of protestors agreed with Chenggang that having a Starbucks outlet inside the Forbidden City, a site of cultural and historical importance, was not globalisation but an erosion of the Chinese culture.

This is certainly not the only case of business failure due to lack of adequate cultural understanding. In today's interconnected world, cultural sensitivity in business is more important than ever. Ignorance of foreign cultures can antagonise customers, alienate employees, breakdown negotiations or bring business operations to a grinding halt. This is why cross-cultural awareness is so important. Let us look at four simple steps that you can take in this direction.

Motivate yourself to adapt cross culturally
Keep an open mind and take interest in learning about a new culture. Look for situations where you can meet and be inspired by people from different cultures and consciously establish friendships with them. You will no longer see differences as challenges but as opportunities to learn something new. Learning a foreign language or volunteering to do a project with a different department in your organiSation are ways in which you can get an opportunity to interact with people from outside your own culture.

The higher your motivation to adapt, the more effective you will be in new cultural contexts.

Understand different cultures
Broaden your knowledge by studying about the beliefs, customs and taboos of another cultural group. This will help you understand how culture shapes the way people do business or interact with others in social contexts. Begin by looking at your own culture analytically - this will help you understand how your own culture shapes you. You must also pay close attention to people's body language.

Observe their gestures and facial expressions and try to interpret the meaning underlying them. You can also seek cultural insights through books, journals, and documentaries. The more you become familiar with different cultures, the easier it becomes to spot similarities and differences between them, thereby helping you build on the similarities and being mindful of the differences.

Interpret culturally diverse experiences

The deeper you immerse yourself in cross-cultural situations, the more understanding and practical experience you will gain. Weave your experiences together and make sense of them in order to strategise a plan for future encounters. Experience helps you learn which behaviour works and which doesn't. The rules and expectations of an alien culture will gradually become clear to you. If you make it a habit to actively think about your experiences and their impact on you, for instance by keeping a diary, you will soon be able to rely on your intuition and subconsciously determine how you should behave or respond according to the cultural context you find yourself in.

Act in culturally sensitive way
Acting in a culturally sensitive manner entails being mindful of the differences between various cultures and suspending judgement as to which is better. Your actions and demeanour must prove to people that you truly understand and respect their culture.

Small gestures such as knowing how to greet (bow or handshake), offering to remove one's shoes before entering a house, speaking slowly and in an understandable accent, pronouncing names correctly, or showing genuine interest in people's stories puts people at ease.

In a nutshell, cross-cultural awareness is a fundamental requisite for success in business in today's age. Cultural intelligence is pretty easy to build by subconsciously adjusting one's thinking and behaviour in varied cultural contexts. Plentiful drive, cultural know-how, ability to draw on that knowledge and capacity to sensitively respond to appropriate cues is all it takes to recognise and respect diversity.

Swapnil Kamat
Founder, CEO & Chief Trainer at Work Better Training

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First Published: Mon, July 06 2015. 00:12 IST