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Cultural Sensitivity in Business

cultural-sensitivityInterested or affected by the impact of language and culture in business?

This article gives concrete, real examples of how a lack of cultural sensitivity can result in a negative impact on a business.

Forget the saying 'the world is getting smaller' - it has gotten smaller. Advances in transport and communications technology combined with the development of a world economy have resulted in people from different nations, cultures, languages and backgrounds now communicating, meeting and doing business with one another more than ever.

There are some observers that claim this new found intimacy has lead to a greater understanding of 'the other' and as a result our cultural differences are in fact diminishing. However, in reality the opposite is true. As we come together our cultural differences become accentuated as we start to realise that the rest of the world is not reading from the same book. One area where this is now being felt is in business.

Very few businesses can escape the need to at some point in time deal with foreign colleagues, clients or customers. Business is international and if an organisation wants to develop and grow it needs to harness the potential an international stage offers. Twenty years ago British, European and American organisations doing business abroad had very little competition due to the lack of rival industrialised nations. Back then it was easy to do business 'our way'.  Today some of the world's largest economies include Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, India and Korea. As a result there has been a small shift from 'our way' to 'let's try and understand your way'. Why? Because western organisations are feeling the impact a lack of cultural sensitivity can and does have upon business performance.

Many organisations are now investing heavily in providing staff with language lessons in order to be able to crack foreign markets as well as providing cultural sensitivity training to address issues such as etiquette, protocol, communication styles and negotiation approaches. In a competitive world such businesses appreciate that greater cultural sensitivity will assist them in forging longer and more prosperous relationships. Yet progress is slow. Unfortunately a subconscious sense of cultural superiority still seems to reign; one that assumes the rest of the world does business like us and if they don't then they should.

The world's inhabitants however come from many faiths, cultures, world views and experiences which makes such an assumption futile. We are all different and as a result doing business across borders (whether political, religious, cultural or linguistic) requires cultural sensitivity, meaning a sense of empathy, flexibility and creativity informed by cultural knowledge. As with most things in life, business has learnt the hard way.

To illustrate how these lessons have and are still being learnt we will look at some examples where a lack of cultural sensitivity has let a company, individual or product down. For the sake of brevity these have been summed up in two simple categories: culture and language.

Culture

Culture comes in many shapes and sizes. It includes areas such as politics, history, faith, mentality, behaviour and lifestyle. The following examples demonstrate how a lack of cultural sensitivity led to failure.

- When colouring in 800,000 pixels on a map of India, Microsoft coloured eight of them a different shade of green to represent the disputed Kashmiri territory. The difference in greens meant Kashmir was shown as non-Indian, and the product was promptly banned in India. Microsoft was left to recall all 200,000 copies of the offending Windows 95 operating system software to try and heal the diplomatic wounds. It cost them millions.

- The fast food giant McDonald's spent thousands on a new TV ad to target the Chinese consumer. The ad showed a Chinese man kneeling before a McDonald's vendor and begging him to accept his expired discount coupon. The ad was pulled due to a lack of cultural sensitivity on McDonald's behalf. The ad caused uproar over the fact that begging is considered a shameful act in Chinese culture.

- A nice example of how pictures don't translate well across cultures is the time staff at the African port of Stevadores saw the 'internationally recognised' symbol for "fragile" (i.e. broken wine glass) and presumed it was a box of broken glass. Rather than waste space they threw all the boxes into the sea.

- When the US firm Gerber started selling baby food in Africa they used the same packaging as in the US, i.e. with a picture of a baby on the label. Sales flopped and they soon realised that in Africa companies typically place pictures of contents on their labels.

- Pepsodent tried to sell its toothpaste in South East Asia by emphasizing that it "whitens your teeth." They found out that the local natives chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth which they find attractive.

- The film "Hollywood Buddha" showed a complete lack of cultural sensitivity by causing outrage and protest on the streets of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Burma when the designer of the film's poster decided to show the lead actor sitting on the Buddha's head, an act of clear degradation against something holy.

- The concept of Big Brother was somehow taken to the Middle East. The show was pulled of the air after its first few episodes due to public protests and pressure from religious bodies stating the show's mixed sex format was against Islamic principles.

- A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, the number 4 is equivalent to the number 13 due it sounding like the word "death".  The company had to repackage the product.

Language

The business world is littered with poor translations that have caused great embarrassment to their perpetrators due to their lack of cultural sensitivity. The following are some of the choicest examples.

- IKEA once tried to sell a workbench called FARTFULL - not a hugely popular product for obvious reasons.

- Both Clairol and the Irish alcoholic drink Irish Mist did not properly consider the German language when they launched their products there. Clairol's hair-curling iron "Mist Stick" and the drink "Irish Mist" both flopped - why? 'Mist' translates in German as "manure".

- The Japanese seem to have a particular flair for naming products. The country has given us gems such as "homo soap", "coolpis", "Germ bread" and "Shito Mix".

- A new facial cream with the name "Joni" was proposed for marketing in India. They changed the name since the word translated in Hindi meant "female genitals."

- Coors had its slogan, "Turn it loose," translated into Spanish, where it became "Suffer from diarrhoea."

All the examples cited above could easily have been avoided by conducting some basic research in respect to checking the concept, design, shape, colour, packaging, message or name in the target culture. In the majority of cases it is simply assumed that 'if it is OK for us it is OK for them'. If businesses want to succeed internationally, cultural sensitivity must be at the heart of everything they do; from their personal interaction and relationships with clients to the products/services they develop.