Working across cultures is usually more interesting, if not always more enjoyable, than if we were just doing business with our own nationality.
It is most likely that 60 to 70 percent of "the ways we like to do business" are quite familiar - if not always fully understood - among our cross cultural colleagues and clients.
Conversely, there are several extremely important areas of interaction between culturally diverse people which can probably never be standardized. And these are the areas which provide major surprises - and costly pitfalls. How can we anticipate these differences and work effectively?
As people from different cultural groups take on the challenge of working together, cultural values sometimes conflict. We can misunderstand each other, and react in ways that can hinder our partnerships. More often than not we are not even aware that our cultural filters or assumptions are different from others.
At a minimum, there are three vital areas to take into account when it comes to culturally differing business attitudes and behavior:
• Attitudes Toward Conflict. Some cultures view conflict as a positive dynamic while others see conflict as something to be avoided. While in the U.S. conflict is not usually desirable, people are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that arise. In contrast, in many Asian cultures, where relationships and harmony are the basis for effective communication, open conflict is avoided. Conflict is seen as embarrassing or demeaning and is best worked out quietly. Written exchanges, indirect communication or using a third person as a message bearer might be the favored way to address conflict.
• Approaches to Completing Tasks. When it comes to working together effectively on a task, cultures differ with respect to relationships and task completion. Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end compared to Europeans and Americans. In general, European and American culture tends to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing tasks, or value relationships more or less; it simply means they may pursue them differently.
• Communication Styles. When doing business across cultures, you may believe you are communicating clearly, but you are probably headed for big trouble. Most executives claim they try to adjust their English language in a foreign business situation. The facts show that there are still problems. After one recent meeting of a Management Committee, we asked a senior Chinese executive how much he got from the discussion. He said, "Not more than 50 percent." Take the time to check whether you are actually understood; avoid using slang and hire professional translators and interpreters.