Communicating value across cultures

By | September 29, 2011

Reading about Cisco’s move to Bangalore in BW’s breathless prose, this interchange struck me forcibly.

“It will give them some exposure and it’s a glamorous job … but it could create an Ivy League-type clique of expats who are richer than the locals,” Kay said. “I doubt that most of them will stay long enough to learn a language beyond ordering food and beer. They’re not ‘going native’ and getting deep expertise in the Indian market.”

Leo Scrivner, Cisco vice president of human resources, disagrees.

The United States Department of State has extensive literature and information available for their foreign service personnel, their families and children on what to expect when moving to a new culture. Expat websites, newspaper sections and discussion groups abound, particularly as global nomads – children who spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside of their passport countries due to their parents profession – discover the power of the internet to maintain close friendships made from around the world. Expat managers run multinational offices around the world, and their children go to international schools catering to their needs. This, I believe, is an overlooked talent pool for US corporations seeking to truly link to the rest of the world.

Manuel Toscano – who moved every three years until his teens – and I coauthored an article last fall called “Lessons from Walmart: 5 common mistakes when brands cross borders“. These five points are not just for companies, brands or products, they very much apply to human beings as well. More so, since much of our discussion and debate  during the writing focused around our own life experiences in multiple cultures and countries, what we refer to as a highly mobile childhood. Let me summarize them again here,

  1. Interpret, don’t translate – Take a moment to understand the intent of the other person’s message, not just their choice of words or linguistic flexibility. Words are powerful. They carry semantic meaning that differs from culture to culture. To only take the meaning of their choice of words, particularly if English is not their or your mother tongue, may lose the true meaning of their attempt to communicate. If you think that the message is inappropriate to the situation at hand, take a moment to ask the other what their intent was, what meaning did they intend to convey?
  2. Value is contextual – Geert Hofstede and Edward T.Hall are the people to research and read when it comes to how different cultures place value on different things. So what may seem to you as as the other person’s lack of response or empathy might simply stem from the other not valuing [thus not understanding] what ever it was that was bothering you. For example, the concept of personal space is highly valued in the United States, but almost non existent in India. The British might never dream of asking someone if they were married or how many children they had at first meeting but in Singapore the shopkeeper will cheerfully ask you if you are married, all the while haggling over price.
  3. Playing follow the leader – What may have worked in one culture may not work in another. And even if people look the same or share the same ethnicity there is no guarantee that their cultural and social cues are going to be the same. Human cultures and societies evolve over time – an ethnic Chinese Singaporean friend working in Shanghai noticed the difference in San Francisco’s Chinatown. That while all three locales ostensibly shared the same cultural symbols, there were differences in nuance and attitude that were poles apart. Similarly, ethnic Indians in Malaysia and Singapore are very different from those in South Africa, yet in many ways the same. Similarly, the Australians and Canadians are uniquely different yet in some ways very similar to the British.
  4. Making assumptions. I am an engineer from Bangalore university. I carry an Indian passport. I live in the Bay Area. What is my area of specialization?
  5. Ineffectual leadership – Have you selected the right person for the relocation? From the article,

Whether it is selecting the right local partners or vendors to work with or the employee in charge of the project, the quality of the individuals can often make or break a new market entry strategy. Your brand manager may not have any exposure to the new market or its culture, or may be too inexperienced to question the agency’s decisions. Remember that a large agency may have an international presence but this does not guarantee that their local offices have influence in shaping the strategy of the brand in their market. Think first about who is working on your project and review their approach are they arrogant? are they culturally sensitive? All of these and more are highly relevant to finding the appropriate person or partner for a very different market.

And finally, don’t be in a hurry to see results. While market forces may require quarterly sales figures be constantly monitored, entering a new market, particularly one very different from your own, is a matter of respect, patience and perseverance. Witness Toyota’s successful application of these very qualities in the world today.


First published Sunday, 07 Jan 2007 on Perspective (some links may have moved)

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