World class business: The basics of intercultural awareness

Being culturally aware is like being diplomatic. For some people it seems to come naturally. Others blindly hurtle forward, unaware that their ignorance is offensive to others. In business, being sensitive to other cultures can win you contracts and life-long relationships on which you can build your business – and keep it.

But what exactly is this abstract awareness? Basically, intercultural awareness is knowing why people from different backgrounds act the way they do. Once that we understand that, we can use that information to have better relationships with  them.  This awareness will help you predict how people who come from different backgrounds will act, speak, think, make decisions and perceive the world.

It is important to note that this does not mean endorsing stereotypes or pigeonholing people into categories. It is about being open-minded and willing to understand others for who they are. For example, you may learn that while dining with a Chinese colleague, it is not customary to discuss business. One normally talks about the meal itself and pays compliments to the person who has prepared it. Somewhere, there is probably a Chinese business person who will talk about business incessantly during a meal. The important thing to remember is that you are dealing with an individual and that human interaction is fluid and dynamic. The more flexible and aware you are about what to expect, the better your cross-cultural interactions will be.

If people from other cultures want to do business with us and interact with us, why don’t they learn our customs?  Often they do. But that is only half of the battle. If you make the effort to learn about your counterpart, you will both be making the effort to understand each other, doubling your effort and chances for success.

While your counterpart may act like you and sound like you, he or she isn’t. That person may think in a different language, process information in a different way and make decisions differently than you do. If you understand how culture may affect this person’s character, you may give yourself an edge in business and in communications. That’s an edge that your competitor may not have.

Cross cultural awareness is one of those abstract, “soft skills”. It takes time to cultivate. It is an evolutionary process that continues throughout our lives, if we chose to open ourselves to it. There are a number of ways to gain this awareness, such as through direct contact with the culture or through popular media.

Everyday the media bombards us with images from around the world. Although sometimes we can learn interesting material from the media, it is good to be aware of sensationalism and media bias. It is important to remain open-minded and non-judgmental.

People are usually delighted to about the customs and culture of their homeland. Many of us are embarrassed to ask questions because we fear that we will be judged as ignorant. My experience has been that non-judgmental questions that are motivated by a sincere interest to learn are always answered with enthusiasm.

If you know that you are going to be dealing with someone from another culture it pays to do your homework. The internet and general interest reading material may be helpful. Some things that may be helpful to know before dealing with someone from another culture include such things as forms of address and greeting. Knowing what to call a person and how to greet people properly can win you friends and business. Not doing so, or making a blundered attempt, may be remembered – in a negative way – for a long time. When in doubt, ask how your counterpart would like to be addressed. If nothing else, this shows respect on your part.

Another important issue is table manners.  This is a huge topic, but suffice to say that if you will be dining with clients or prospects from another culture, it is worthwhile to find out what their customs are. Take the time to learn about this before you sit down at the table.

By making the attempt to become culturally aware you will expand your mind as you learn more about the world around you, give yourself an edge in business and negotiations, and enjoy friendships with people from diverse backgrounds. When you become culturally aware, you gain the riches of the whole world. Isn’t it worth it?


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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