It’s a small world after all. And I’m not talking about the never-ending, annoying Disney ride that can drive you insane. In the global economy we now live in, you’ll eventually have to work with people from different countries and cultures. This year alone I have been in Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Singapore and Vienna working on projects and have seen first hand what a global economy looks like. Clear communication across the entire world has never been more important. As a communication professional, I often find well-meaning people commit grave errors because they don’t understand the cultural implications within a discussion. Most of the time, words alone fail to give you the true meaning of an international exchange. There are some lessons every business professional, pastor or even mission-bound volunteer should learn before they blow a deal, an exchange or, worst, start a war.
Bad translations will derail any negotiation. While accurate translation should be a given, I’m amazed at how many times meetings go south when the interpreter misses a nuance or a slightly different word usage and translates a concept incorrectly. If you’re in a situation where someone else is translating, make sure he or she understand the culture more so than just the pure language. On my recent trip to Vienna, our European host had my team eating at “Heurigen” most every night noted on our advanced agenda. If you know me, you know how much I like to eat, and the idea of going all the way to Austria to eat at the same restaurant was just killing me. I must confess, I whined about it, a whole lot, only to find out “Heurigen” is a description of a winery-based type of restaurant in Austria. Every night we were treated to a different “Heurigen” with delightful specialty foods and their own specific wine. All my whining was unjustified because I miss understood one word. But in a tough negotiation setting a mistranslated concept can derail more than your dinner plans.
You must understand cultural values when engaging a potential business or ministry partner. Ok, these are over-generalizations and I’ll probably get hate mail from making some of these comments, but unless you understand certain underlying cultural values, you won’t be able to engage successfully in business or ministry. For example, Brazilians will not likely trust you unless you’re able to go out with them after work, eat a late, late dinner of grilled meat (at least a half a cow) and party until wee into the night. Germans value precision, and a strong work ethic (a German-Brazilian combination will work and party you to death. Trust me. I know). Asians don’t like confrontation and hate to be embarrassed, so brash tactics can backfire quickly. Most cultures are not as loud as we, Americans, are. During my recent trip to Austria, the 3 of us from the US were responsible for 90% of the volume in public places. So be careful not to come across as a loud-mouth, know-it-all. Unfortunately, Americans have gotten that reputation and too often deservingly so.
Nothing replaces a face-to-face exchange. With the advent of email, video conferencing, Skype and other tools, it’s easy to get on an international call and have people from different continents participate. We do if often at The A Group; however, there are times that the wise thing to do is to spend the money, get on a plane and meet in person. Technology has yet to create a tool that allows us the same benefit of interacting with people who are so much more than a title, an avatar, or even a two-dimensional video representation of a complex, wonderfully created individual who needs to be experienced in order to be understood. Most conference calls I find myself waiting for my turn in order to make my point and drive my agenda forward. Sitting across the table during an honest exchange with someone forces me to live in their moment, not just mine.
What has been your experience in a cross-cultural situation?