Virtual News (En)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cultural Awareness, Self-Awareness

Cultural awareness is the key to building successful international business relationships and should include understanding cultural differences and acting appropriately. No doubt most of you associate this with this with learning about the cultural habits, customs and negotiating styles of the country of the person you are going to be doing business with but this is only one part of the process and certainly not the first.

If you read some of the literature on intercultural or cross-cultural studies, you might get the impression that all you need to do is do a bit of background reading on your target culture/country, perhaps buy a special report on the business style and negotiation tactics there and you’ll be set. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

The problem with this approach is that it immediately sets you up an “Us vs. Them” relationship. The Germans are like this and the Japanese are like this – “they” are unusual, different, the other. This is ultimately quite unhelpful when you come to meet your prospective client because as you’ve already pigeon-holed them you’re likely to miss subtle behavioural clues that don’t confirm your picture of people from that culture. More importantly, although these categorisations of countries and cultures work well at a group level, they break down when confronted by specific individuals. For example, the Japanese businessman who is visiting you from Tokyo may have spent a significant amount of time working or being educated in the USA which may have totally transformed his way of doing business and negotiating.

For me, the first step in cultural awareness is not finding out about other cultures but finding out about yourself: your “myths”, attitudes, beliefs, worldview and stereotypes. This may seem surprising and you may even think that you know all about yourself already but it’s extremely important for the following reasons.

1) You’ll be better prepared to overcome problems in meetings with foreign business people
2) You’ll be a better negotiator
3) You’ll be a better communicator

In short it will give you an edge.

So “How do I find out about myself?”, I hear you ask? You’ll probably be glad to hear it isn’t necessary to meditate on a mountain top for 20 years but you do need to begin a process of personal observation in your encounters with others. We need other people to show us our blind spots and show us more of how we really behave instead of how we like to think we behave. This process can be as simple as asking others for their feedback about us and our behaviour in specific contexts (e.g. at work, at home), to reading books (see suggested reading list at the end of this article) and taking online assessment tests, such as the one contained in this article on EQ.
This step in developing intercultural awareness is probably the most challenging to take as it necessitates a willingness to change and some difficult moments as we uncover uncomfortable truths about ourselves. However, once it is then the other steps in the process of developing cultural awareness - knowledge of the culture, politics, history and business customs of the target culture and skills development in culturally-sensitive verbal and non-verbal communication - are relatively easy to acquire.

Suggested reading:

1) When Cultures Collide by Richard D. Lewis, (Nicholas Brealey, 1999).
2) Riding the Waves of Culture by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (McGrw-Hill, 1998).
3) Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, (Bantam, 1997).

About the author
Neil Urquhart is a communications and intercultural skills trainer who helps individuals and public and private sector organisations win new overseas business through training and consultancy. For the last 14 years he has lived and worked in countries as diverse as Japan, Brazil, Germany and the USA. He is currently based in London.


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