Adapting to New Cultures

Since VizQuest launched our services to international companies, one of the biggest challenges to these endeavors is adapting to new cultures. Of course, we do our due diligence beforehand: we do Google searches, pick up some books, or scour through articles and blogs about cultural differences to try to predict how others would behave. We learn that other cultures think, act and express differently and learn to anticipate these differences.

We think we’re prepared, but more often than not we discover that people from other countries act completely different from what we thought we had learned. We’ve encountered loud and confrontational people from cultures where people are typically quiet and reserved. Vice versa, we’ve also dealt with mild-mannered people from cultures known to be more aggressive. So why do we encounter this shock when we’ve done our homework?

The problem lies in the question we ask ourselves in preparation for dealing with business in different cultures. The first and most obvious question we ask is “what cultures is this person from?” Because national cultures do matter; networking in India is different from how it works in the U.S., and motivating employees in Japan is different from how it is done in Mexico.
The real mistake, we’ve realized, is that we thought that national cultures were all that mattered. Because as it were, culture isn’t everything and we had to ask ourselves a more focused set of questions if we wanted to better prepare ourselves to deal with these cross-national differences. Based on our experiences dealing with international companies, these three questions were key in preparing for our ventures:

Question 1: What do we know about the specific region?
In addition to learning something about the overall cultural norms when assessing the situation, it is also a good practice to learn about regional norms. For example, imagine an international company coming to the United States: we Americans here know for a fact that people in New York City will be different from people in San Francisco. Likewise, every other country in the world has regional differences that deviate from just the overall cultural norms; Northern and Southern Italy tend to act differently, just as the East and West coasts of the U.S. are different.

Question 2: What do you know about the company or industry?
Companies and industries also have different cultures in the same way that countries and regions do. Meetings at more established, suit-and-tie organizations are going to be run quite differently from younger, t-shirt-and-jeans startups. Some organizations have more transparency between the bosses and lower levels, whereas other companies’ heads will maintain a greater distance between themselves and the employees. Behavior norms in the fashion industry are going to be drastically different from behavior in the pharmaceutical industry, and so on.
But keep in mind that in certain situations, the company culture will reflect the culture of its native region or country. For example, a Japanese technology company operating in Tokyo will likely maintain norms that are traditionally Japanese, such as a high level of power distance. But imagine what the cultural norms of a global consulting firm like Deloitte operating in Tokyo would be like. Deloitte is headquartered in New York, but since it offers its services globally their cultural norms will differ by office, each one reflecting both the local culture and its Western DNA that may divert slightly from the Japanese norm.

Question 3: What do you know about the people?
Finally, ask yourself what you know and what you can discover about the very people you will be working with. A 60-year-old senior vice president will be considerably different from a manager in his 20s. Typically, the older people are more likely to reflect the cultural norms on face value.
There is also a difference between the locals who are born and raised in the area versus the journeymen who have an extensive travel background. The locals will be more likely to reflect the regional behavior whereas the journeymen will probably be more open and accepting of behaviors outside of the norm.
Your role in a given interaction is important in communicating across cultures as well. For example, in many Asian countries such as Korea, India, and China, it is very difficult or even unacceptable (in certain companies) for subordinates to directly communicate with a superior, whereas superiors are able to communicate to subordinates at will.
Doing business internationally is an exciting and potentially lucrative venture. It can also be a challenging proposition if you are not willing to adapt and cater to certain cultures, as some norms might be too outlandish or even outrageous in the eyes of a Westerner. Doing the proper research of reading and researching will help to offset many difficulties and help you adjust to deal with these cultural differences. Remember, they will have just as hard of a time dealing with the differences you bring as well, so it is a two-way street.

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