Building Cultural Bridges - How to attain a cultural education
Adapt marketing materials
An Australian company went to a US trade show, and invested in marketing collateral printed on glossy A4 paper. Following the show they followed up via phone and email; when asked ‘what did you think of our brochure and the case studies?’ prospects would respond, ‘oh, sorry we threw out your brochures as they don’t fit in our files’.
Lesson learnt: When in Rome, think and act like a Roman. US businesses use US letter-sized paper and their file cabinets are set up for that size; A4 does not fit, and it is easier to throw the brochure away than to scan it. While this is a basic example, potential customers think that if you can’t adapt your marketing materials to their market, what are the chances you will adapt your product and systems to support their needs? Learn how the market operates by asking someone who lives and/or works there, or has sold into the market.
Lead with relationships
Find the channels to market
Plan to preclude poor performance
Over the last three years, EC has observed that being patient pays handsomely. This contrasts with the large number of Australian businesses that have the unreasonable expectation of looking for their investment in new markets to be recovered in six to 12 months, and to establish an ongoing channel to market. EC finds a pattern in Australian firms going global: the first group is DIY when time, funds, interest permits; the second group has tried exporting DIY and is now looking for assistance to gain new markets; and the third group is doing their homework now as they know they will do exporting some day, but not soon.
Use a coach or mentor
Businesses willing to invest in developing an export roadmap, and to prepare 90-day plans to execute against their roadmap, often see exponential results and long-term momentum into new markets. A common element in the roadmap is a coach or mentor to assist in gaining insights into the new market culture and buyer behaviour. The mentor or coach often shares a half-day to one day per month and over time build the knowledge, confidence and capability of Australian businesses to meet new market needs.
Develop cultural sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity is a function of the extent of your experience and the attention you pay to cultural differences. We employ a wide range of strategies to avoid confronting the implications of such difference, so it is not surprising that busy people often don’t take the time to learn about how they differ culturally from their overseas counterparts, investigate what these differences do to our ability to engage across cultures, and how we can bridge our differences and learn to communicate with and trust each other.
Remember etiquette and customs: First of all, it’s useful to know about people’s customs and habits, for example when and how they greet people. There are many books on this topic, from professional studies to popular travel guides as well as videos and websites that help us know how to behave in everyday encounters with people who are different from us. Knowing what behaviour is expected in particular situations and practising it can help enormously: you can quickly feel comfortable and blend in a bit, and prevent some unintentional insults.
However, the downside are that it is difficult to memorise a long list of dos and don’ts; it’s easy to misunderstand which situations call for which behaviour; it can be easy to act stereotypically when
the rules will not apply in all situations; and most people don’t expect outsiders to behave like insiders. Learning customs and habits is one way of getting to know others but is not the only, nor necessarily the most effective, strategy.
Learn the language of your counterparts: Anything from learning their slang or abbreviations to mastering the language. Language is a key to understanding how people think, how they see the world, and what is important to them, and valuable for communicating across cultures. But learning another language takes time that you may not have before interacting with people from another culture, yet you will certainly benefit from picking up that phrasebook and learning at least a few polite words.
Apply models of culture: We can learn models of culture that help alert us to areas in which our differences are likely to show up and where the differences will make a difference. For example, some people have a deep respect for authority and hierarchy, the boss is important and is to be treated accordingly, while other groups are egalitarian. Or, some people may proceed on their own as individuals, while others are inclined to act by consensus. To see the broad range of differences within which people think and act, it helps to use the dozen or so dimensions of difference developed by Western intercultural researchers such as Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede. These models help you recognise, classify, and respond appropriately to differences, but do not necessarily tell us why these differences work the way they do, or how these differences are viewed by your counterparts.
Develop skill as a cultural detective: Finally, there is a powerful way to understand the motives of others and ourselves: by learning about core values. How do we find out how and why people do what they do? What motivates them and shapes the behaviour and expressions we see and hear? A cultural detective’s job is to unearth the motives that drive people to do what they do. Being and behaving differently is not a crime; however, we are likely to treat it as such unless we can find our way into the mindset and values of those different from ourselves. To become a cultural detective, you need to:
- Identify and understand the core values of a culture and the diversity of ways they are carried out by those who hold them.
- Develop an insatiable curiosity that is always ready to ask ‘just one more question’.
- Put all the clues together to understand what is really taking place, what it means and what solutions are at hand.
Such cultural sleuthing leads not only to understanding, but opens the door to bridge building and synergy that can benefit both sides. As anyone who’s lived among other cultures knows, our Aussie common sense is not necessarily common. And that’s the first step in becoming a cultural detective: being culturally self-aware and able to identify the values of one’s own culture.
The next step involves bringing that awareness to an examination of an interaction with another culture, viewing it first without judgement, and then through the eyes of both cultures. The final step is then working out ways of building cultural bridges so both sides can communicate better and resolve the problems they have encountered.
Learning from Cultural Detective is based on the actions of individuals in unique situations. In this way, participants learn that while there are cultural tendencies or norms, each person is unique and complex, and that stereotyping or over-generalising is counterproductive. The emphasis is on obtaining cultural information as the starting point for dialogue and reflection.
Karen Huchendorf is the managing director of Global Interface, specialists in cross-cultural training and consulting (www.globalinterface.com.au), and co-author of Cultural Detective. Scott Gillespie is a director at Expatriate Connect, an initiative of the Australian Institute of Commercialisation, the Southern Cross Group and ALBA National that provides market-experienced mentors/coaches and training to help business become export ready (www.expatriateconnect.com)