Jo Geraghty


Working across cultural boundaries

Date added: 25th Feb 2013
Category: Employee Engagement

A friend of ours once said that she’d been happy to embrace vegetarianism because when she was growing up she couldn’t tell the difference between lamb and beef.  She put this failing down to family circumstances which meant that they could only afford the poorest cuts of meat combined with the fact that her mother wasn’t the best cook in the world.


Thank goodness she wasn’t growing up in the current climate where it has emerged that lamb, beef, horse and pig all seem to have been jumbled up in our ready meals in an indistinguishable melange of off-cuts and other by-products of the slaughter process.


Interestingly the initial press reports seemed to concentrate on the fact that there was nothing wrong with eating horse rather than the follow-up issues of fraud, mis-labelling and whether the meat used was fit for human consumption. It is true that horse which has been raised for the food chain and properly tested is regularly consumed in other countries and indeed there is nothing illegal in eating horse meat in the UK.  However, it is part of our national psyche that many of us find something repellent about the idea of eating horse meat, or indeed some of the other meats which are regularly eaten around the world.


This example perfectly illustrates the challenges faced on a daily basis when we work across national boundaries.  Our history, food, heritage and culture all combine to underpin our methods of working and approach and if we don’t take steps to accommodate those differences we are in danger of making some fatal errors.  Sometimes the differences are obvious but at other times we may make assumptions which can lead to problems down the line.


Let’s just take a simple service proposition as an example.  You’re in a meeting which is looking at delivery times and when asked if the task can be completed by the end of the month the head of the delivery team says “yes”.  But does yes mean yes and at what cost?


Indians hate to say no so they are more likely to say yes and then try to make the deadline happen by throwing hours and people at it, regardless of the impact on other projects.  Similarly the Chinese instinct is to say yes before they have even considered the question or how they will meet the deadline whilst other cultures are so bound up with exhibiting self-confidence that they will say yes even when they haven’t a hope of meeting what is required of them.   Equally the Americans culture includes a strong element of “try lots of things before you find something which works” so their yes may mean we’ll get the first attempt done by then even if it won’t work.


Conversely cultures which are more cautious and exhibit a “we’ll have to ask more questions” or “let’s go away and work timings out first” response can be seen to be negative or indeed can be seen to be refusing to make the deadline.   Understanding the cultural propensity to say yes or no or maybe can help to ward against major misunderstandings and will contribute significantly to the overall success of the project.


The propensity to say yes or no is just one example of the way in which cultural differences run throughout business life.  They will emerge in hours worked, attitude to authority, eagerness to embrace change and so on.  International businesses which take time to understand cultural differences can use those differences to allocate tasks to the most effective units.  Those who expect all outlets to act the same are letting themselves in for conflict and cost.   We may not all eat the same foods, we may not all act in the same way but by embracing and understanding those differences we can make life much richer and more profitable for all.

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