Breaching the Culture Gap

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Rising through the ranks of any company today increasingly includes the prospect of a period of work outside of your home country. The culture shock of this experience is the topic of an October 7th article on website ‘Marketing Week’.

Placements can vary from marketing research in China to an office-based role in the USA. To many people the former example seems the more culturally challenging, yet a shared historical and linguistic background does not equate to a shared culture- according to Allyson Stewart-Allen of International Marketing Partners. Being able to understand the language someone uses does not necessarily mean you understand the meaning of what they are trying to convey. Wherever you work, being “cross-culturally” aware is important.

What techniques can businesses use to breach the gap?
Companies take two main approaches to this question: initially selecting culturally inquisitive employees and training employees once a placement is announced.

Companies such as Reckitt Benckiser (RB) and Diageo particularly select those people they feel will adapt well to living and working abroad. RB uses its graduate scheme to sample from universities with a high ratio of international students, whilst Diageo looks for people who have the “sensitivity and willingness to take an extra step”. So starting with those who are open-minded to cultural change is clearly important, although encouraging less confident employees to “take an extra step” must also play a part.

Taking practical measures, such as arranging childcare, housing and language lessons (as RB does), helps employees to “settle in” in a new country and focus on the job at hand. Will Harris, Marketing Director for Nokia, emphasizes the need to immediately accept your lack of cultural knowledge and continually work to bridge the gap. Significantly Diageo’s Chief Marketing Officer, James Thompson, also states that “you can’t just learn a culture in a couple of years”. Perhaps suggesting that there is only so much preparation that can be taken before you have to ‘test’ a culture out for yourself.

What cultural differences are you likely to encounter?
Not all differences are explicit, expected or directly related to business.

Etiquette and Behaviour
How you greet a colleague could include a kiss on each cheek, but beware of countries like the USA where such informalities are deemed inappropriate at work. Similarly your means of address are essential for ensuring you are socially respectful, Cristina Diezhandino of Diageo reports that even in casual situations an African Chairman was addressed “Mr Chairman”.

Working Relationships
Generally, Western countries tend to take an opportunist and individual approach to tasks, whilst more Eastern countries (such as Japan) prefer a slower paced and highly group-orientated approach.

Country Structure
Some countries may not work at specific times of year (in Scandinavia a month is taken off in the summer), whilst others may have government schemes that make your product or service unnecessary (Swedish children have state-funded lunches until the age of seven so packed lunch products would be difficult to market at this age group).

In some countries meetings may be conversational and free (such as the in Spain), whilst other countries have highly structured and target dominated boardrooms (like in Germany and the USA).

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