Managing Cultural Diversity in Business

The title managing cultural diversity seems more daunting that it actually is. So what does it mean?

In a nutshell it is about understanding how each culture views or does business with each other. As the world is literally becoming smaller and business can now take place without even the need for face to face meetings; there is an even greater emphasis placed on understanding how cultures differ and in your business environment why people from different cultures do things in a particular way.

One little example: At a recent training day I facilitated, we played‘guess who’. This is a game where I ask everyone to anonymously write something about them related to their culture on a post-it note. These are then read out randomly. The idea is to see if the other people in the room can guess who wrote what? More often than not, no matter how well the people know each other, the guesses are miles off.

On this particular occasion, one of the participants wrote, ‘in my culture, it is considered disrespectful to look an older person in the eye’. The other participants had a good number of guesses before finally giving up. The man then owned up and explained that he came from South Africa. This was particularly enlightening for his colleagues as some of them admitted that they had often considered him to be rude. Thus, one culture clash was diffused and everyone concerned understood each other better.

In British business culture, eye contact is considered to be extremely important and you can easily see why people could get off on the wrong foot.

Eye contact is an element in the use of body language, as well as facial expressions, touch, use of space, gestures and the sounds we make which carry language e.g intonation.

Touch is another interesting topic of discussion. In some cultures, touch is less acceptable than in others. How many times have you been on holiday to Italy or France and seen people openly greet each other by kissing on each cheek? People from these countries often perform this action, even if they have only met each other a few times. This would be very much frowned upon in the UK, particularly in Scotland. In Europe there seems to be a North/South divide in relation to touch. People from many parts of Asia will not touch at all.

In Japan, it is customary to bow when greeting another person, rather than shaking hands.The Japanese also have many types of bows: informal, formal, very formal, apologetic and so on. When Japanese business people meet business people from other cultures who use handshakes, interestingly the Japanese will often bow and shake hands. If you are not aware of this, there could be a very nasty clash of heads. Not really the kind of footing you want to get off on if you plan to do business together. So, understanding cultural diversity in this instance will ensure that your business transaction flows more smoothly.

Again, in Japan personal space differs from that in many western countries. Japanese will often stand 1.5 metres or more apart. To western business people, this would seem rather strange as if the person is avoiding them or is disinterested in what they have to say.
There are two gestures which can cause trouble when doing business in other parts of the world. The thumb up sign is perfectly acceptable and positive in the UK and the USA but in Iraq and Spain it is considered obscene. Equally the O.K. sign is again obscene in Greece and parts of Eastern Europe.

Moving your head from side to side or nodding it up and down can mean the opposite in some parts of Asia than in the UK.
Having taught Chinese students I have occasionally fallen foul of cultural etiquette. On one particular occasion, a male student had completed an excellent essay that he had obviously worked tirelessly on. I am not particularly ‘touchy, feely’ but I was overjoyed and made the cultural ‘faux pas’ of patting him on the back to congratulate. This was met with a frozen body response. Needless to say I have never repeated this mistake again.

My students are often amused by the indirect nature of British people, for example, when making polite requests. I make light of this and say that we are looking for the longest way to make a request ‘would you mind awfully, awfully, opening the door so that I can pass through’.

Another thing my students find it hard to grasp is the fact the British people smile all the time at people they come across, even if they don’t know the person. To many of them, this appears overly familiar. One of the things they sometimes fall foul of in the UK is not joining at the end of a queue. British people can find this extremely upsetting. On one occasion I had friends visiting from Germany who made a trip to supermarket whilst I was at work. They had planned to cook a meal for my wife and I. On our return we discovered that they had upset people in the supermarket by not queuing in order.
All of the above are examples of differences in cultures and demonstrate cultural diversity in a variety of areas that we often take for granted when dealing with people who share the same culture as us.

The key to managing cultural diversity in business is to:
1. Understand the way we think and act
2. Be aware of how we interact and communicate with other people
3. Examine our own culture specific business behaviours
4. Be open minded
5. Be willing to learn