How Cultural Myopia Affects Business Communication
by Alicia Ventresca, MA in Developmental Psychology, Columbia University
In today’s business environment, multicultural etiquette plays a key role in corporate productivity. From embarking on international ventures to mingling with overseas clients, cultural savvy is necessary to leverage diversity. In fact, it has been shown that workforce dynamics are conducive to creativity, innovation, and large-scale expansion. As cross-cultural relations become evermore embedded within the American infrastructure, there is an increasing need to understand and connect with a highly heterogeneous network. Where to begin adopting a global mindset: follow our step-by-step guide to multicultural etiquette training.
Step 1: Learning to appreciate other cultures. Research authority Dr. Geert Hofstede, known for his widely comprehensive study of multicultural influences on the workplace, has found that culture is more frequently a source of conflict than of synergy—largely due to cultural myopia. To enhance your understanding of other cultures, seek firsthand experience (for example, reading the work of anthropologists and sociologists, traveling, visiting national history museums, following international newsfeeds). Remember unless you understand the values, beliefs, and customs of your business associates, you cannot possibly understand what is important to them. Assuredly, your effort will not go unnoticed by your new clients, as this is one “getting to know you” gesture that is universally well-received.
Step 2: Enhancing your cultural self-awareness. That is, seeing yourself as others see you. Every social group is subject to certain stereotypes or “fixed” conceptions that unreliably precede us. For example, prior to meeting with a French client for the first time, certain stereotypes might come to mind. Aloof. Arrogant. Disdainful. Likewise, your French client might affiliate “American” with “crude,” “obnoxious,” or “money-hungry.” Plainly stated by author Raymonde Carroll, “For a French person, the face of an American could easily be replaced with a dollar sign.” Hence, cultural self-awareness is essential to righting misjudgments and building harmonious work relations.
Step 3: Developing cross-cultural sensitivity. What is “standard and appropriate” in one culture may be the opposite of acceptable in another. Do your research! When crossing a new border, familiarize yourself with the language, protocol, and native decorum of the country. Be mindful of significant markers and traditions (for example, important dates, colors, numbers), religious practices, and rules of conduct. For example, if meeting with colleagues in China, it is deeply ritualistic to bring a gift or small token of appreciation, presented to the most senior person at the table. Never give flowers, handkerchiefs, or clocks as they are associated with death and funerals.
The gift should be wrapped in red, green, or yellow paper, considered to be lucky colors. Remember multicultural competency is, in large part, about civic informedness.
Step 4: Appreciating a worldview. Many clients experience discomfort, embarrassment, even fear when forced to communicate across multicultural settings. However, by recognizing the importance and relevance of multiculturalism, they learn to embrace it. There is much to be gained by working together and yet more to be lost by refusing to cooperate. Among the many benefits of workplace diversity are enhanced performance, worldwide growth and repute, efficient collaboration, and increased job satisfaction. Because multicultural etiquette training allows employees to engage with persons of different backgrounds at a higher level, work relationships are based on respect and dignity from the beginning. Given the prevalence of cross-cultural teams, the three C’s are of essence: consideration, composure, and professional courtesy.
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Leading Across Borders