Most people preparing to travel abroad for business or leisure focus on the kind of information found in guidebooks, tips for customs like how to give and receive business cards in China or the correct seating arrangement around a table in Japan.
However effective it might be for superficial interactions, this culture-specific approach only scratches the surface. In fact, it even prevents you from truly becoming an effective communicator and from deepening your knowledge of cultures around the world. You can never truly know all of the cultural nuances or intricacies that determine business or social interactions in a given country and be effective navigating them by only knowing about the things you see on the surface.
Instead, to become truly effective in negotiations with foreign clients or to understand your potential client base abroad, I recommend two things. First, take a culture general approach. By this I mean study the universal dimensions that define all cultures and become familiar with the underlying characteristics of culture as concept. These dimensions can be used to explain how specific national cultures differ from one another and explain the things we see on the surface.
Among the most often cited frameworks to help us understand these dimensions is that by the Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede. His research looks at how different societies define individuals’ roles and how those roles relate to create a nation’s overall culture. He pinpoints such elements as how a society addresses hierarchy and inequalities of power, whether individuals fend for themselves or rely on a collective community, whether competition and assertiveness or cooperation and quality of life are rewarded, how a society deals with uncertainty, how it prepares for the future, and how much people indulge in enjoying life and having fun.
Evaluating and understanding a nation’s culture along these lines can provide valuable insight before your travel there or do business there. To understand these elements, you can use Hofstede’s online comparison tools. Or you can do your own research and seek out insight from those who have a background in that particular culture.
Second, I recommend that you get to know your own national culture and how it falls on each of these dimensions, too. This means taking a deep dive into the culture that you live in and recognizing how it informs your company’s management structures, reward systems, risk aversion, global strategy, and so on. Not only will this knowledge help you better understand yourself and your company, but it will also help you diagnose where you will encounter misunderstanding or conflict in cross-cultural situations. Analyzing your own national culture will give you insight into how people from other national cultures expect you to behave.
Armed with both the knowledge of what makes up culture and how your own national culture is positioned along cultural dimensions, you will then be better prepared to understand those culture specific details that you find in travel guides. You will be better able to understand why the Chinese, who place a high value on the in-group, present and receive business cards with both hands and why the Japanese, who adhere to a moderate level of hierarchy, place the most senior person in the room at the head of the table farthest from the door. You will also be in a stronger position to appreciate other parts of national culture, too (like music, literature, and food).
The culture general approach, coupled with knowing your own national culture, will help you appreciate why people are different and enable you interact more effectively with fewer instances of miscommunication and misunderstanding in your global business dealings.
Rebecca L. Bellinger is the managing director of the Office of Global Initiatives and Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.