Intercultural communication? Just be yourself

By Arnout Nuijt

avatarMany, many years ago, he was “my first Mexican”, the diplomat who came to visit us at our office. He never knew it, but he taught me the risks of cultural profiling, the generalisations and assumptions we make of the world’s different cultures and their ways of doing business, aka intercultural communication.

Back to the Mexican diplomat. We knew beforehand he wanted something from us we could not give him, simply because it was not in our power. While knowing nothing about Mexicans, I advised my colleagues (to whom his demand was directed) to start the meeting calmly, drinking some coffee and talking about anything but the subject in question, until the diplomat himself would smoothly raise the issue. We would then refrain from reacting directly and bluntly (the way we Dutchmen usually do), but withhold our answer, while explaining our position. I would then contact him several days later to deliver the “final verdict”.

That was the plan. It was a chic one, we reckoned, and it was basically in line with what is usually prescribed when dealing with “Latin” people, at least according to the books. Since the gentleman was a diplomat as well as a “Latino”, I was sure that he himself would be far from direct in his dealings with us.

In the end the gentleman unceremoniously barged in the meeting room and made his request as bluntly as possible, before he had even touched down on the seat of his chair. We never made it to the coffee.

I barely had the time to check out his full range of surnames on his business card and to note he was of Middle Eastern extraction.  That meeting was over before we knew it and, though he left with a clear picture of our position and knowing his request would fail to find fertile ground with us, we would continue to hear from him over the next few weeks.

So why was this Latin diplomat so blunt and direct? I wondered – but I do not want to generalize nor caricaturize anyone – if it was perhaps his Middle Eastern background? Maybe his elite status? Or had he done his homework and did he know that Dutchmen like to be open and direct? Had he adapted to us, while we had tried to adapt to him?

That would raise an interesting question. When both business sides study each other’s culture, the situation becomes confused. Which culture is leading? And are both parties talking to fake versions of themselves?

Personally I enjoy getting to know other cultures and the history of the lands I visit. Generally it’s a good thing and it gives you a lot of advantage when doing business. But, although some of the people I want to do business with like to meet someone who is interested in their culture and history, others may get confused. They wonder how much I know. Do I also know the bad things, the things they are ashamed? And do I know all the rules? They may also be disappointed, because I don’t act like a gringo or gaijin. They can’t teach me, show me around and be good hosts. There’s no joy, no honour.

And that makes you wonder yourself. Are Japanese really angry when you bow the wrong way? Of course not, not if you are a real gaijin. There is always the handshake. But what if you are reputed for you knowledge of Japanese culture? Than you can’t make any mistake.

Much has been said and written about intercultural communication and, like I said, I believe it is important to know your business partners’ cultural background. But do no exaggerate. I have been in situations where I – no kidding – knew more about the history and culture of a place than my local counterpart. When I noticed this might be interpreted as showing off, I played dumb. My hosts were very eager to show me around and I did not want to spoil their fun. They were expecting an ignorant foreigner and I played that role. So for the rest of my stay in that place, I surrendered to their stories and lessons on local customs. Luckily it turned out right.

Showing off that you know the place does not always do the trick. Vice versa, when on the receiving end of a business visit, you’d better stick to being what you are and what the visitors expect you to be, that is, if they have done their homework.

So why should you learn another culture? Well, because you will need that knowledge once you come to the point of negotiations. You will need to understand why your business partners react the way they do and how or if they will come to next steps.  You might even be predicting their next moves. That’s when you need to know a thing or two about them.

Meanwhile, generations of businessmen have travelled the world without any education in intercultural communications. The men who rebuilt the Netherlands after World War Two had no time or means to go to university. But they learned on the job and made careers nevertheless. From the 1960s and 70s sales reps from dredging, engineering and shipbuilding companies from the Rotterdam region started travelling the world, selling contracts for ships or building ports in Arabia, Asia and so on. They usually had enjoyed modest education and knew little beforehand about the countries they were to visit. Yet, they did it successfully, by using common sense and by being themselves. It was their expertise, their openness and their “Dutchness” that earned them respect.

So, when you meet your future business partners keep an open mind, show as little public knowledge about their culture as possible and just be yourself.

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8 thoughts on “Intercultural communication? Just be yourself

  1. To synergize with different cultures is good for business and better for the soul. On account of Textile business I travelled literally dozens of countries. It helped me with four extra idioms that I learned during the travels as well – and my mind was expended from theology to culinary; from semantics to genealogy. To honestly love or at least appreciate another’s culture must come before business. It’s hormonal. It’s visceral. People “sense” of sniffs phoniness. This text above is right to the point. Its principles precede the ones of Dale Carnegie. It’s principles as old as the Auroras, Borealis or Australis. When we learn how to love our kinship, ally it to it sincerity and integrity, half of the sales’ battle is won. The so called “closing” is a mere consequence. Besides sales, adopting this attitude of immerging in a giving culture, we are the one that becomes enriched. By doing so, besides the sales, the languages and the culture, this attitude resulted to me in two books, written in my native language (Portuguese) and published in Brasil: THE BUG EATER (O PAPA BESOUROS) and A STEP TO VENETO (A UM PASSO DO VENETO). Respecting, appreciating, immersing in another’s culture and in humanity, results many goods emerging to the humanity sea: Your commissions, incidentally, too.

  2. Arnout, you have some good observations, especially presenting the universal conundrum in international business: Whose rules are we using here? However, you conclude with contradictory advice: pretend you don’t know much about their culture AND be yourself.

    1. Hello Andy, thanks for that, very interesting too!
      I don’t say you should ignore cultural differences, but be aware of them and don’t show them off, while being yourself….guess it’s more of a stealth knowledge then.

  3. Thank you for the article. Quite interesting! Although the culture is a big contributing to personality, the individual is unique and might not correspond to typical aspects of her/his culture. The openness you refer is key to see first a person, then the culture around he/she. M.v.g., Jussara.

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