How to befriend the Zorkians and other lessons in navigating cultural complexities in global business


navigating cultural complexities

navigating cultural complexities

Culture is complicated. Developing relationships and business across borders may be challenging, but developing relationships and business across cultures is where the real art lies.

Years ago, the Ambassador to Canada of an EU Member State addressed a luncheon crowd at one of the major chambers of commerce, and politely but rather directly, told a group of senior executives that Canada talks a good game about being a “trading nation”, but that in fact, we are not really exporters.

His argument was that most of Canada’s business is done with the U.S: a nation with which we share a common language and a significant list of other similar characteristics and reference points, including, the implication was, similar elements of culture and mindset.

This is not a piece about debating the differences between being Canadian and being American. I leave that for another contributor, and anyway, there are several very humorous lists floating around out there already.

I take this ambassador’s point. You are missing out on a great deal, and in some ways, not really doing “international” business, if your travels do not include a crossing of cultures as well as borders. And yet, books have been written about cultural gaffes that have cost individuals promising opportunities, and cost major corporations millions or more, to say nothing of the years of lost goodwill.

There is very little ‘science’ to cultural awareness

Navigating cultural nuances can be a virtual minefield, and the complexity of the subject matter is reflected in the way it is handled, even in the most robust academic treatment of the topic. There are no hard and fast answers, and there is no hard science, because culture is a profoundly human expression of identity. In my view, it is a very personal experience that can be aggregated only up to a point.

It’s also the case that crossing cultures while crossing borders makes the whole process a lot more interesting, and let me just say it, much more FUN!

(You wouldn’t know it by my FITT photo or my professional profile, but I can be a fun guy, really!!)

The Canadian Foreign Service Institute published a short booklet fifteen years ago titled “A Profile of the Interculturally Effective Person”, then seen as a world-class guide on the topic, and probably still at the leading edge of practical thought on the subject.

The authors of this guide define an interculturally effective person as someone who is able to “live contentedly and work successfully in another culture.”  That definition might arguably apply to individuals who undertake medium-to-longer term assignments in foreign markets.

I would suggest that some variation of this applies equally to a ‘road warrior’ whose travel is shorter term, but may be quickly immersive, where ineffectiveness can have immediate and drastic consequences from which recovery is difficult (impossible?) due to the timeframes involved.

Adaptability is really the cost of entry

Being effective across cultures is important, whether you are relocating, or hopping to Manila for a two-day meeting after spending a week in Dubai, before heading to Geneva for meetings at the WTO. Whirlwind trips across oceans can sometimes involve equally ‘distant’ trips across cultures, and adaptability is nothing less than the price of entry.

If your instinct is to hit up the first hamburger joint after you get off the plane in a country you’ve never visited, I’m suggesting respectfully, please do better for yourself, and for the potentially enriching personal and professional experience you could otherwise have!

Put another way:

 If you’ve travelled a few thousand kilometres and the first thing you want to get your hands on is a French fry that tastes the same almost anywhere in the world…are you freakin’ serious??!!

OK, the French fry can be really good, but here’s one concept from economics that has proven useful: Opportunity Cost (slightly adjusted for this purpose): what else could you be doing in that moment, and what value is being lost as a result?

Of course, the poor French fry is just a proxy for any number of other aspects of an international experience, from reverting to familiar modes of negotiation, to seeking the “comfort” of familiar contractual terms or legal commercial/legal practice, even familiar modes of social interaction and relationship development. The list can be extensive.

Culture is like oxygen in some ways: we are surrounded by it, at the same time as it is in us: it is possible to make a conscious effort to be aware of one’s own culturally-based preferences, references, mindset and biases. But it is impossible to completely ‘step out’ of our own cultural reference points, and thus, equally impossible to completely adopt an unfamiliar culture, even if there is a sincere desire to do so, and even for a limited time or a particular purpose.

Hofstede and Hall are often quoted in reference to cultural considerations, and the Hofstede model of Cultural Dimensions offers six interesting ‘dimensions’ on which to understand and compare countries and their cultures.

Give the Zorkians a chance

OK, let’s get practical for a minute.

You arrive in an unfamiliar country and are immediately told (or maybe you were told this by a well-meaning colleague before you ever left home) that the local population, largely of Zorkian descent, are formal and distant, and very difficult to “connect” with.

You are invited some time later to conduct a two-day training session for a group of about fifty senior executives in Varnesia, where you are warmly greeted by the organizers, but gently warned not to take offense, because Varnesians NEVER interact or engage in public, and certainly will not do so when the session is facilitated in a second language by (GASP!) a foreigner.

Perhaps you have the unique pleasure (which can sometimes become a uniquely memorable type of headache, if only briefly until you get on top of things) of managing a team of professionals from multiple countries and cultural backgrounds.

The challenges and joys of engaging across cultures are numerous and endlessly interesting.

None are insurmountable, and despite the fact that this element of international activity can be a source of extreme tension, even near-paralyzing fear in some unfortunate cases, the reality on the ground is that it’s about basic respect, a bit of common sense, some homework, and a genuine desire to connect with people.

As it turns out, the group of Varnesians were reticent for about two hours, then it was possible to motivate their engagement by stepping behind a three-metre high projection screen, literally turning one’s back to the room to ensure that any brave speaker would not be seen, and asking a question from that ‘hidden’ position, providing a bit of initial comfort and a minor injection of humour into the process.

Be careful though, once they get comfortable and get started, Varnesians seem to actually enjoy engaging, and it will be impossible to have a ten minute break without someone wanting to come over for a chat!

Zorkians, on the other hand, are quite accustomed to asking how you are doing (and hearing the same question back), but not really prepared for you to actually pause for an answer from them. A couple of interactions of that nature might get you invited to a local steakhouse where a special “not for tourists” steak is served that can only be found in one particular neighbourhood. Strangely, several of those Zorkians, so difficult to connect with, may become excellent professional collaborators, and even – believe it or not – friends!

Focus on building genuine relationships

Managing teams that combine local and remote resources, and include members from multiple countries – or even different cultural groups in the same country – is a subject for another post, or a book.

Suffice it to say, one piece of advice offered years back to a colleague, may be worth repeating here: genuinely take care of the relationships and they will help you take care of the rest (mitigate and reduce challenges and amplify successes). This applies cross-culturally just as it applies in the comfort of your home markets.

Paralysis by analysis is a real risk in the context of intercultural effectiveness. Perhaps the best insight and advice I ever received on this subject, is to remain “yourself” at the core, irrespective of the context in which you are pursuing business.

That is to say:

Genuineness is important, and a contrived (or poorly executed) attempt to “go native”, no matter how well-intentioned, can seriously backfire.

Being yourself does not imply a negligent disregard for the context in which you are engaging: if the society is a conservative one, it is simply discourteous, possibly offensive, and potentially a personal danger to act in ways that would offend such sensibilities.

The subject of intercultural effectiveness can be studied and analyzed, and you can prepare diligently for international engagement, but it is much like tasting a new wine. The description on the bottle rarely does justice to the contents, and the best way to do well in terms of intercultural effectiveness is to engage, dive in, and actively seek opportunities to extend your own experience in this area.

One powerful gateway to effective cultural engagement is language: every language, it was once noted, brings with it a unique way of looking at life and at the world – much like every culture.

Like many other aspects of international business and trade, the ‘art’ of intercultural effectiveness, where personal approach and differentiation can be exercised to good effect, is perhaps the more interesting dimension than the ‘science’.

The navigation of intercultural effectiveness may be complex, but it is very much achievable, and it is personally and professionally enriching. The more you engage, the better you will get, and the more fun you will have.

Are there cultural “French fries” you need to cut down on to enjoy international experiences and become more interculturally effective?

 Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Alexander R. Malaket, CITP|FIBP

Alexander is a globally recognized specialist in international business, trade and trade finance. He is President and Founder of OPUS Advisory Services International Inc. (Canada)

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