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September 1995 - Issue No. #20 (p.18)
The aim of the English-learning business executive is to negotiate effectively with foreigners. To understand the problems that learners of business English have, it is worth considering the subject from their perspective.
The ambitious English learners go on cross-cultural seminars and workshops, read everything they can on the subject and may even learn a few words of the foreign language. Then, armed with this knowledge, they go to a country like Japan knowing that it, like most Arab and South American countries, is a group-oriented society which values collective interest rather than the individual, where opinions may be predetermined by group membership and where harmony should be maintained and conflict avoided. But still the executive returns home, frustrated and unsuccessful in his or her attempts to communicate.
Next week, he is off to Germany where he knows from his courses that uncertainty avoidance is high and that people feel threatened by unknown or uncertain situations. The executive might expect there to be many precise rules, that punctuality is highly valued and that behaving differently may be regarded as dangerous. Still, they feel lonely and isolated and return home roundly cursing Germany and its people.
The following week, the executive jets off to France, knowing that he may be faced with rampant bureaucracy, had better watch his courtesies and should show respect to people in positions of authority and power. Still, the tired executive returns home confused and frustrated at a seeming lack of ability to communicate with his or her hosts.
What has gone wrong? Basically, it is that many training courses operate under the misapprehension that cross-cultural awareness is a skill. But cross-cultural awareness is no more a skill than knowing how long it takes to fly to New York is a skill.
The skill is the application of the knowledge in an effective way. Anecdotal information such as "Italians prefer a smart dresser"; or that personal relations are important to the Arabs, offer no guidance to the harassed businessperson as to how they can apply this knowledge.
If they are to apply knowledge acquired from courses and workshops, international executives must have genuine faith in:
Having taken this on board, the executive learner must be able to identify the fundamental interest of all people - the universal need to communicate if dealings with other cultures are to be successful. Broadly, these universals are:
"In the world of business, there is only one language - the language of business," according to one international executive on a communication skills course that I ran recently in Britain. This rigid attitude does not acknowledge cultural differences nor does it respect them. Sweeping aside cultural differences offends people's desire for respect and proper pride in their own culture.
Before our executive can talk business successfully and communicate through the universals, he or she will have to spend time navigating cultural differences. The key ingredients here are genuine interest in and enthusiasm for the other culture.
The executive should adopt the attitude of a learner. People feel flattered when a foreigner wants to learn about their culture, that he or she thinks the culture is worthy of respect. It is also fun for them to play the part of the teacher. Genuine questions will also allow room for mistakes. Most people will usually forgive a social gaffe if they believe it is the result of ignorance. But if they believe it is the result of arrogance, serious problems may occur and close the door to effective cross-cultural communication forever.
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