By John Kent
Most of my adult life I’ve visited a number of different countries. Some I’ve lived and worked in. Some I have only passed through. In 1996, I travelled more than usual—around the world twice, both for business and pleasure. And in the middle of these travels, I had a change of consciousness. Suddenly, the world became very small. It was as if I could actually reach out and touch anywhere on the Earth—London, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Sydney, Moscow, Tokyo.
I’m sure this is a familiar experience to the international businessperson with many years of travelling and negotiating throughout the global marketplace. It’s an experience that more and more people share as international trade increases and more companies go abroad.
On one hand, such globalization offers great potential for growth, stimulation and excitement. On the other, it’s full of potential problems as different cultures bump up against each other generating misunderstandings, confusion and frustration. There are thousands of well-documented cases of negotiations that failed because of a lack of cross-cultural understanding.
Apart from the personal stress and ire this can cause the individual executive, the cost to the company can also be enormous. The premature return of an overseas employee, their spouse and two children can cost a corporation well over $200,000. Surveys have shown that as many as one in seven European businessmen sent overseas on long-term assignments fail to stay the full length of their assignment due to problems caused by culture shock.
Among American businessmen the number is estimated to be as high as one in three. In Saudi Arabia, an average of 68 percent of Americans without cross-cultural training fail to complete their contracts. And 18 percent of untrained American expatriates regularly return home prematurely from Britain—a country that is traditionally thought of as culturally close to the United States. U.S. Department of Commerce statistics show that 24 out of every 25 business proposals made by American firms to Japanese counterparts died during the negotiation stage. In many cases, the reason had nothing to do with price or quality. The failures were due to cultural misunderstandings.
A study by Pennsylvania State University’s Behrend School of Business should sound some alarm bells. It found that of 100 high-level U.S. executives working in Western Europe (average income $172,000), 84 percent received no corporate briefing on management practices in their host countries; 77 percent did not get any factual information on the new country; only 15 percent received language training; 75 percent of the companies failed to communicate with their employees’ spouses about the new assignments or to offer them job assistance overseas. Not surprisingly, the results were that 20 percent said they wanted to be transferred back home; nine percent actually returned home early; and 14 percent left their employers within a year of returning from the assignment.
Corporate and national image are at stake here. Before a manager is asked to negotiate with a foreigner—whether in the United States or another country—preparation is essential. The manager should be given a frame of reference into which the ‘strange’ behavior of the foreigner can be fitted. He/she should have available a set of intellectual tools in order to analyze what’s happening during the communication. The most experienced international business-people are able to accept cultural differences without making value judgements. They’re able to work creatively with these differences and not feel personally threatened by them.
For new managers with no experience in international trade, there should be a general introductory seminar. This might cover such topics as differences in attitudes concerning time, non-verbal communication, styles of doing business, social customs, the role of the businessman in society, differences in the decision making process, national stereotyping, how we see our own culture and how others see our culture. Such a seminar should be an awareness-raising activity and encourage managers to begin to see and question their own assumptions and prejudices about ‘foreigners’, to begin to come to terms with them and fit them into a bigger perspective. It should be a seminar that broadens the manager’s thinking and feeling.
The trainer for such a seminar should have a great deal of international experience and be extremely sensitive to the feelings of the participants. Ideally he should be able to open their eyes to the problems and potentials of cross-cultural communication by using a variety of techniques. These could include giving mini-lectures covering cross-cultural communication theory, providing case studies, organizing role-playing and other simulations, leading discussions among participants, providing analytical tools for dealing with culture shock, offering a wide range of examples and anecdotes—and last but not least—using humor creatively to break down participants’ barriers to the new and unusual.
Such a seminar might be followed by country-orientation programs specific to the nationalities the manager will be dealing with. In this second seminar, specific details of the counterparts’ behavior and value systems can be fitted into the general framework presented in the first seminar. What will be the attitude in Mexico toward time and punctuality? How soon can she begin to talk business with a Saudi Arabian? Should you talk business over dinner with a Japanese negotiating team? How should one respond if the Nigerian holds his hand for some minutes after shaking it? What if the Russian insists that they drink some vodka together in the morning before getting down to business?
Trainers in this seminar should have a lot of knowledge of the specific country in question. Other managers in the company who have worked in the country should be invited to share their experiences, feelings and attitudes with the participants. If a citizen from that country can also be present, so much the better.
The lingua franca of the world business, political and scientific community is English. There was no conscious, planned or internationally agreed upon program to make English the world language. It has happened by chance—mainly due to the economic and political influence of Britain and the United States. The statistics are interesting: for example, 70 percent of the world’s mail is in English (if you include email and fax, the percentage is larger); 60 percent of all radio transmissions are in English; 50 percent of the world’s newspapers are printed in English and there are more people learning English today in China than the total U.S. population! It’s estimated that half the world’s population speak some form of English—about three billion people.
But because the rise of English as global language hasn’t been a planned event, there is often a lack of clarity about what English we should use in order to communicate effectively in international settings. Some of the worst communicators in English in the international community are the native speakers—the British, Americans, Australians, Canadians, etc. The reason is that the English they use is sophisticated, culturally oriented, contains a high vocabulary load, and is fast and idiomatic—i.e., loaded with plenty of local slang. It’s therefore wrong to adopt this native-speaker English as the international standard. When Mr. Svensson from Stockholm meets Sra. Hernandez from Spain they probably understand each other pretty well because they’re using a simpler, more practical form of English called International English.
The grammar, structure, vocabulary, pronunciation and usage of International English is something that should be included in any globalization training program. Native-speaking businesspeople can be trained to modify their complex English and make themselves more clearly understood to the much larger global population of speakers of English as a second or third language. Contractions and clipped enunciation are frowned upon in this generalized framework. There’s no use in having a cross-culturally open mind if you cannot use English effectively to clearly communicate your proposals, questions, thoughts, comments, ideas and feelings.
Becoming an ‘international person’ is a lifelong process full of frustration, rewards and enlightenment. It’s a never-ending learning process. Before managers begin to work with businesspeople from other cultures, they should be well prepared. Both for their own sake and the company’s reputation, they should be given some basic training in how to deal with the often overwhelming diversity of customs, styles, values and manners they’ll meet in the international marketplace.
“My central message is that you can negotiate abroad providing that you remember that culture does influence your partner’s behavior and that if you want to do better in your negotiations you had better become aware of the influence that your partner’s culture is exerting on him or her—and, as important, the extent to which you are influenced by your own culture.”
—Gavin Kennedy, Negotiate Anywhere, Preface
- Fisher, G. , International Negotiation: A Cross-Cultural Perspectives, (ISBN: 0-933662-24-6 ) 1980, p. 7.
- Kennedy, G., Negotiate Anywhere, Arrow Books, 1985, Preface.
About the author
John Kent is a director and consultant of Axiom in London, England. He has worked as a communication skills trainer, cross-cultural consultant and career development facilitator in numerous countries. Kent has developed a variety of seminars designed to improve communication. Clients have included commercial, industrial, scientific, medical, political and academic organizations. He can be contacted at website: www.axiomskills.com