Cultural differences in business will be a non-issue in 20 years

Digitally connected world gives younger workers a different view of cultural differences

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 1:45pm

Do you proffer a business card with one hand or both? Do you shake hands – and is gender a factor in whether you extend your hand first? Is it expected or appropriate to exchange gifts when negotiating a business transaction?

With thousands of different customs in countries across the region, it is not surprising that the issue has spawned websites, businesses and consultancies that help to navigate the business transaction.

While guanxi plays a significant role in doing business in some parts of Asia, in 20 years’ time – due to technological innovations and a generation attuned to being socially connected across the globe – business customs will converge. Culture-specific business customs will become largely irrelevant to international business practice. We are converging to a global culture for doing business.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking about how to lead and manage in an Asian country, or indeed in another country generally, it presents a whole lot of challenges for you because there are differences.

This prevailing wisdom is to seek guidance from “best practice” business resources focusing on the importance of cultural difference, along with a blizzard of tips and suggestions. Amazon has tens of thousands of items for sale on the topic. A Google search will also turn up millions of hits.

What is disappointing about these resources is that many are limited to the dos and don’ts of doing business in various countries. Most of us know about accepting business cards in both hands, deferring to hierarchy and status in some countries, and that direct eye contact can be interpreted in many ways. However, the lists of different conventions or taboos propagated in some of these resources are seemingly endless.

Dealing with unfamiliar cultures is more a case of watch and see, and emulate

How can any intelligent person, even with an extraordinary memory, keep track of all of these customs for working with different countries?

Compounding the overload of proscribed behaviour is that in countries such as China and India, there can be up to 30 different regions, each with their own conventions. In a digital age where working across different regions is more typical and common, I am not convinced that the traditional dos and don’ts are still relevant, or even effective.

A lot of the research around cross-cultural customs is dated and we now have a new generation in the workforce who are much more connected and for whom the cultural differences aren’t as wide and might not even apply.

My research into multi-generational workplaces, and across workplace settings, indicates that younger people at work don’t experience the cultural differences in the same way. I’m not going to say they don’t exist, but the expectations and experiences are completely different.

So how can we behave appropriately in cross-cultural business dealings without having to memorise all the so-called local norms?

Well, dealing with unfamiliar cultures is more a case of watch and see, and emulate.

What if you approach a different cultural interaction with an open mind – delaying judgment and putting aside your own cultural identity and values, responding to what you experience there and then?

It’s about the ability and speed of an individual to open their thinking and adjust their behaviours to mirror and build rapport with people from other cultures.

Key to successfully adjusting and responding in situ – thinking on your feet, perhaps – is cultural intelligence. It has three elements: the ability to detect differences and similarities; an acceptance of difference; and the valuing of difference as a learning experience.

At the same time, and working in parallel – and this is where the cognitive processing of the individual comes in to play – you are making numerous adjustments in your thinking and adjustments in your behaviour as you learn.

Being adept enough to make behavioural changes is a quality that recruiters and organisations should be looking for in their staff to succeed in operating across boundaries. It requires delaying judgment, and adaptive behaviour.

It sounds simple, but this is the tough part. The judgments that we make about a decision or a person – about an interaction – are derived from our own cultural identity, and our values and beliefs. Only when you delay that judgment can you be open to appreciating and accepting the differences that another culture has.

However educated, a freewheeling approach to picking up and mirroring local customs in action inevitably carries the risk of etiquette stumbles and falls. Common experience is that newcomers are cut a certain amount of slack.

There was an interesting discussion about this on a panel I was participating on in Singapore last year. A person from the audience noted that when a foreigner does stumble and fall – and it doesn’t matter if you’re a virtual foreigner or in place in a different country – there is wide understanding that it’s OK, but it’s not if you are a local.

But there’s a time period for this forgiveness and the measure is all about the intention of the person. People were saying, “Yes, we give someone one year maximum to make these blunders, and if they haven’t made the correct adjustments, then they’re an outsider. They’re ostracised.” I hadn’t heard anything like that before but there was widespread acceptance of that notion at the event.

Generational change, globalisation and digital connectivity are flattening out national differences in business customs and practice. The once obligatory gift-giving when doing business in China no longer applies; in fact in some regions it’s no longer appropriate. And the Chinese networking notion of guanxi, with its expectation of reciprocity and relationships, now applies all across the world.

Guanxi is as Western as it is Chinese; you’ve got to have the relationships, you’ve got to have the network, before you are allowed entry.

I see all of these small shifts as a creep towards a breakdown of cultural differences in business. In 20 years this will be a non-issue.

Professor Julie Cogin is deputy dean at UNSW Business School and director of the Australian Graduate School of Management