When you look at a full moon, what do you see? An old man’s face? A piece of cheese? A rabbit pounding rice? That’s right, in Japan this is a very common belief about the image of the moon. So, the next time you gaze at the stars and add this image to your repertoire, it is a sign that you are becoming culturally fluent.
What is cultural fluency?
Culture is usually defined as a complex mixture of societal norms that include: knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, habits and many other learned patterns of behavior. Fluency is typically linked with the complex understanding of a language and all of its intricate meanings. Cultural fluency, then, is having the capacity to embrace and flow within many various cultural environments, and the ability to utilize diversity for understanding and growth.
Developing cultural fluency is essential for any global leader. As more and more organizations expand across national borders, leaders will need to widen their views on competition and national behaviors. To survive in the worldwide business environment, we will need to pay just as much attention to differences as similarities, and be willing to accept a wide number of business methods. On many occasions, we have heard managers complain about diverse working environments. One leader even claimed that “one of the most difficult challenges we [as a company] face is working in a culturally diverse business environment.” The point is to recognize that diversity can be an advantage if understood and managed properly. The advantages of utilizing diversity include:
· competitive new product development
· expanded acceptance of new ideas
· ability to recognize new perspectives
· more comprehensive communication skills
· an increase in the ability to cooperate.
Effective global managers assume difference until similarity is proven instead of assuming similarity until difference is proven. In the end, bridging cultural gaps is about communication and building relationships beyond the safety zone of similarity. Developing a diverse list of business contacts that you can rely on for information and ideas is essential.
One important component of cultural fluency is that you must limit your own cultural blind spots. In many cases, what we perceive to be the “right way” may just be a habit. Questioning our own cultural baggage is paramount because it allows us to add new information to a limited vocabulary. Some important tips to consider when experiencing different business cultures include:
· Don’t make assumptions about a person based on where they come from. · Understand that cultures change and are dynamic. Business practices you experienced in China in the early 90’s are very different today. · Try not to take things personally if someone from a different cultural does something that you consider “rude.” This was evident during a conference in the UK, where businesspeople from the Middle East, Europe, and the Asian Pacific were in attendance. A tense moment erupted when a colleague from the Gulf wrote his phone number on a business card from a potential Japanese business partner. For the Japanese, writing on a business card is tantamount to committing a serious crime because they view them as an extension of the person giving the card and expect they be handled with care.
Finding common starting points are also important and can make a big difference in the impression that you set for yourself and your company. Below are three basic issues, however, there are many more.
Low- and high-context communication
In low-context communication, most of the message will be explicit and named in words, while in high-context communication, the message will be implicit and will rely on the context surrounding it. High-context cultures will rely on physical setting, shared beliefs, norms and values to extend understanding. Non-verbal cues are very important, and messages will not be spelled out. Cultures from the South and East tend towards the high-context category, whereas cultures from the West are considered to be mostly low-context. A classic example of the confusion is the experience of a German businessman who came to Lebanon (a high-context setting) for an important meeting. He was told to go to the company’s office that was 200 meters west of Cola. When he asked a shop person what Cola was he was told it was the Coca Cola plant. When he called his prospective Lebanese business partner from Choueifat, the Lebanese businessman explained that the office was 200 meters from the old Coca Cola plant, which was now a busy roundabout in Beirut. The Lebanese residents had a contextual understanding of the term and this was very different from the low-context specific directions the German expected.
Role identity (individual and group)
This starting point relates to the ways that we think of ourselves as part of our department, company and even family. Men and women raised in the Eastern and Southern hemispheres are taught that being a part of a circle of relations is of essential importance. They are rewarded for obedience, cooperation, respect for elders and abiding by family traditions and values. People from the West will most likely have an individualist starting point. Meaning that they see the person as independent, self-directed and autonomous. Children raised in this type of culture are rewarded for personal initiative, achievement and taking responsibility for personal choices and development. Individualist starting point
-achievement is linked to personal goal setting and action.
-accountability rests ultimately with the individual and he/she must make decisions accordingly.
-people are understood to have equality of opportunity and are able to make their own independent personal choices.
Group starting point
-maintaining harmony and group solidarity is important, and one person’s decision should not interrupt that.
-choices and decisions are made in consultation with many overlapping layers of interests and people.
-people’s decisions reflect on their group membership, and he/she is held accountable to the group.
-people accept hierarchy and direction from those they deem to be of a higher status.
Of all the sources of miscommunication in the global business environment, this must be the one that causes the most problems. In the Western mind, time is quantitative, measured, and utilizing it productively is of strategic importance. Phrases like “time is money” and “time is of the essence” are commonly heard in North American and European cities. In the Eastern and Southern hemispheres, time is more elastic and feels somewhat unlimited, which makes keeping fixed appointments seem almost impossible. Several years back, a North American businessman experienced this firsthand in Brazi when he set a seminar for 7:30 PM. Everything seemed to be fine until 7:30 PM came and no one showed up. The team thought this was a complete failure. But after one and half hours, nearly 700 people showed. For the most part, people will take precedence over the schedule.
Whether your work is global or local, the reference points and behaviors involved in developing cultural fluency are similar: listen and ask questions for verification, understand that the other person’s view and starting point may be very different from yours, and accept the limitations of your on view and method of working.
Be the Best!
Tommy Crumrine and Christine Weir are from the Beirut-based CrumrineWeir, the global leadership experts.