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International business students are taught the wrong thing about culture!

Monday March 27th, 2017

Last Friday International Business and Languages student Kitty interviewed me about my new program ‘Working with the US’. In my office we were speaking about cross-cultural leadership and the attention points for companies entering the US market. During our conversation we also discussed the communication patterns in different countries of the world. In some cultures communication is about the exact words that one speaks (low-context, like the US, The Netherlands and the UK). In other cultures, the context in which the words are spoken is relevant (high context, like India, Japan and Korea).

What we teach students

She told me that during her international studies negotiation exercises are done, where students pretend they are from another culture. So far so good. It is helpful in my view for Dutch to learn how high-context communication works. And also for Asians to practice with our Western and very direct way of saying things. In my trainings I spend time on exercises like these where we ask the American or Dutch participants to say something indirectly. And in trainings in the backoffice of a large IT company in India, we train participants to communicate very directly about a delay in a project. This practice helps you understand the way of thinking and acting in another cultural context.

Kitty then told me that in one of her exams, points were subtracted for her in a negotiation exercise. She did not sufficiently adjust her words to the English client she was negotiating with. The teacher expected her to communicate much more high-context when dealing with English clients. Because he perceived her use of words and grammar quite direct, points were subtracted.

This is where I have strong doubts on the way we prepare students for international assignments. The underlying assumption of the teacher here seems to be: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” When you negotiate with people from culture A, you should adjust to culture A to be successful. This would mean that the Dutch would only be successful abroad if they suddenly bring up a lot of respect for authority and hierarchy, and when they use high-context communication while dealing with China or the UK. I strongly disagree here: you can be very successful conducting international negotiations when sticking to the communication patterns of your own culture, without adjusting to the cultural style of the other party.

5-Step Method for international effectiveness

My 5-step method for cross-cultural effectiveness addresses exactly this point (for a full description see my book). Step 1 in cultural effectiveness is to first understand yourself (look in the mirror), and see what impact your behavior can have on others. In Kitty’s negotiation exercise: when you’re Dutch, understand the effect your direct communication style can have on the English counterparts. Step 2 is to reflect on this insight: what will the English think of me when I behave in my regular ‘Dutch’ way? This takes careful reflection on own behavior, which in my view gets way too little attention in many studies. After these two steps, you learn about the other culture in step 3. How do the English behave, and how would they communicate during a negotiation?

Step 4 is crucial, and an eye-opener when I confront business professionals with their behavior. It is letting go of ‘cultural ethnocentrism’, or the attitude that says “I am better than you”. My culture is superior to yours. In this case, Kitty would reflect on her belief that the English have a clumsy and inefficient way of communicating. This belief tells her the Dutch directness and honesty is clearly preferred. She will have to learn to let go this attitude, and consider both cultures equally able to communicate effectively, albeit in different ways.

Finally step 5. This is to decide what you will do in this situation. It could be that in this step Kitty decides to adjust to the English way of communicating. But she could equally well decide – based on the particular situation – to be very direct and outspoken. Many cultures learned to appreciate this about the Dutch. It is perfectly fine for the Dutch to be very direct, and sometimes be seen as ‘too direct’ or ‘rude’. As long as ‘the way we communicate’ is openly put on the table and subject of discussion, it can be effective to stay with your own cultural programming.

So what to do?

“Dear English friend: in my culture we express things very directly and often without considering the effect this has on someone else. We think this is ‘honest’. So I hope you forgive me when I say your proposal is totally unacceptable and way below our expectations. This will not fly, and unless you reconsider your position, we will not reach a deal”. A very direct and often very effective way of performing well in an international negotiation.

,The risk of teaching students to always adjust to the other culture (the English in this case), we tell students their own cultural programming is a likely barrier to success. It should not be. In negotiation skill trainings, I often work with students to increase their ‘mental toughness’ and not be too careful about the effect on what you say to the other person. If you know what you want, go for it. Of course after you consider how you come across and the potential effect this can have on others. But then: go for it, if the situation requires it. Don’t put yourself in a weaker position than you deserve.

What’s your view? Should we adjust to other cultures when negotiating with them? Or should you stick to your preferred way of doing things, while explaining what you do?

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