Summer 2015, a warm West African evening. I was standing outside a building in central Accra, the capital of Ghana, having just left a party and seeking transportation home. I acknowledged the security guard, seated on a small sentry box nearby, preparing for supper. He looked at me with a big smile and said: “You are welcome…” as he pointed at the fare in front of him, with open hands, palms up. His body language embodied the Ghanaian tradition of sharing food with anyone. It was a gesture I had become accustomed to, yet one that never ceased to remind me of where I was, and the honour I was receiving. I thanked him for the offer and being vigilant for my friends in the building, gave a generous tip, then went on my way.
In a world where globalisation matters to almost every business, cultural awareness can build bridges and reduce distances between people. It is a superpower, and we are not necessarily born with it. However, it can be acquired by developing a global mindset, through experience and training. If you intend to approach international business in a holistic way, pursuing long-term, sustainable success to become a global leader, then cultural awareness is your golden ticket.
One of the lasting effects of globalisation is interconnection. Workplaces are increasingly characterised by a melting pot of people from a wide variety of places and cultural backgrounds. Understanding how to communicate effectively in such a complex and diverse scenario is therefore a priority! I have been an expatriate in three different continents – and dealt with customers and projects in 50-plus countries to date.
Together with my team, we advise organisations on this important aspect, introducing key concepts such as ‘the cultural framework’ that can support better understanding of the world around us. This improves your success rate, helping you communicate with confidence, no matter who you are facing. Learning how to enhance diversity and inclusion can create unique advantages. We use established literature such as the Geert Hofstede framework and its dimensions: Power Distance Index, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Assertiveness, Long Term vs Short Term Orientation, and Indulgence vs Restrain. Our vision is to start you on the journey to building global leadership skills, enabling you to deliver value across cultures, transcending traditional boundaries.
Learning how to enhance diversity and inclusion can create unique advantages.
The amazing folks behind ITIJ are known for innovative thinking. They support an industry which is global by nature and can only thrive by embracing cultural dimensions, making them central to its vision. Initiatives such as the International Travel & Health Insurance Conference series create a community where we can build a network of peers and learn from each other, so we can all grow. To contribute to their efforts, I am going to share five unconventional thought processes regarding cultural awareness:
1) Jump to conclusions at your own peril
When dealing with counterparts from a different culture, be aware and restrain yourself from jumping to conclusions, based on your beliefs and expectations. We are often caught in situations where time is an expensive commodity, yet we need to take a step back, observe, ask for support, and evaluate what counterparts are actually seeing, saying and meaning – before ploughing forward without the necessary awareness.
2) Keep calm and slow down
The first and most intuitive cultural difference is language. Conducting international business in English is the norm in most parts of the world nowadays, but in reality there are many different versions of the English language. Keep an open mind, refrain from judging, consider the context – especially with non-native English speakers. Misunderstandings could lead to frustration, stress and negative emotions. Remain calm, slow the communication down and seek further confirmation. This might improve mutual understanding, bringing about better and quicker results.
3) Keep a diary
When visiting a country for the first time, your senses will be on high alert. You are very receptive, registering many things. Also, you haven’t developed any bias or strong opinion about the place and culture. This brief time is gold! I advise you to keep a diary, writing down opinions, impressions, ideas and thoughts. On several occasions, going back to these notes supported me at a later stage, to understand situations and make better overall decisions.
4) Carry business in the world as it is, and not in the world as it should be
When it comes to international business, it is particularly important to build a strategy and execute on verified information, rather than just assumptions or beliefs – with a clear picture of the scenario as it is, not as it should be. The concept of turning a global strategy into a local one, which I truly believe in, springs from this understanding. If your global business strategy does not match, or partially match, the local market you are dealing with, you shall come to terms with reality. Your choices are either to adapt or get ready for a bumpy ride.
5) Fall in love with history, geography and the state of current affairs
If you are doing business in an unknown market, or with a client from a different culture, a degree of preparation is a must. It shows to your counterpart that you care about the relationship beyond monetary value. Nowadays, there are plenty of resources to help with this process. It is also an insurance policy against misunderstandings and inappropriate conversations, which goes a long way in developing the trust required for long-term, sustainable success.
In summary, in terms of effective communication – and even more so when there is a component of cultural difference – the golden rule, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, seldom applies. Instead, there is a need to develop a certain degree of awareness, guiding ourselves to understand what our counterparts are thinking, feeling and believing. It’s time for a new and more empowering rule: ‘Treat others as they want to be treated.’
I invite you to become an amazing Business Diplomat.
Daniele Varè (1880-1956), an Italian expatriate and diplomat who lived in China, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Luxembourg, England and Scotland, wrote in his book, The Laughing Diplomat: ‘Diplomacy is the art of getting what we want, applied to foreign politics. Outside this special field we are all diplomats: in our business, in our family life, in our love affairs.’
Indeed, if you are dealing with third parties on behalf of your organisation, you are a ‘Business Diplomat’. In the eyes of the person in front of you, you are the face of your organisation. I invite you to become an amazing Business Diplomat. Prepare yourself, get to know about the culture of your counterparts, work on your communication skills and cultural awareness, don’t fall for stereotypes and keep an open mind. You will develop an almost unfair advantage, an edge that will help you make a difference. You may not get what you want all the time, yet I can almost guarantee that you will improve your success rate, becoming invaluable for any organisation.
Back to that warm evening in Ghana. The fact that I ‘knew’ what was going on was a reminder of the importance of cultural awareness to stop feeling like a ‘foreigner’, and start feeling like I ‘belonged’ to the place. Make this transition and you will build the trust you need to achieve amazing, long-term international business success.