Posts tagged Cross-Cultural Training
In the world of western business, there are certain words which every manager tries to distance him/herself from: hierarchy, politics, favourtism, traditionalist, etc. These “dirty words” carry a lot of baggage for us, but perhaps none as much as nepotism. We would like to believe we dropped all the evils of nepotism sometime around the Enlightenment of the 17th century. Surely nothing is as undemocratic or unmodern as giving an important post to a family member.
Any reference to nepotism becomes a scandal. Recently, in Bavaria, a German state which prohibits politicians from employing spouses and children, 2 politicians resigned amid nepotism charges and 79 more have been named in reports. Even in the US, which is supposed to be the international symbol for meritocracy, there was a report filed citing nine Congressmen for giving special jobs to family members during campaigns.
Living in India gives you a new perspective on most things of course. You begin to see how hierarchy can also have a softer side, and how traditionalism can preserve things that need to be remembered. But what about nepotism? Family rules in politics where 29% of members of parliament are “hereditary” members, meaning they inherited their position from their parent. In fact, 100% of MPs under the age of 30 got their positions from their parents. In business, Air India has a pending inquiry has a pending inquiry against its executive director of operations for giving pilot licenses to family members without meeting the requirements.
In Indian business, it is harder to separate family from the equation. When a relative is looking for a job, it is your duty to scout around your workplace and see if there are any suitable posts. Why wouldn’t you want to entrust key parts of your business to those whom you know the best? Why bring in a stranger when I can find someone with more vested interest in our success? It is estimated in India that 40% of new hires come from employee referrals and a good portion of those are family members.
In India, people take great pride in the success of the Tatas, Ambanis, and Birlas, who have managed to run their businesses in the midst of family. The Tatas are famous for not only incorporating their family into their business, but then also treating members like family once they join. All foreigners coming into India should be aware of the gold standard that most Indians will use to evaluate your organization.
So while nepotism might still be a dirty word in the world of business, family should definitely be a word you embrace to succeed as you work in India.
Adjusting to the heat of South India takes many approaches. It wasn’t until our second year and in the height of power cuts that we decided to spring for an inverter, a beautiful piece of engineering that allows you to enjoy a few hours of electricity even when the main supply has gone.
However, recently our inverter didn’t seem to last very long. Assuming it was just another shorter than expected life span, our thoughts went to replacing it soon. When speaking to my neighbor about it, she was outraged at the poor quality until she finally asked if we had kept it filled with distilled water.
“Distilled water? Why?” At this, my neighbor dropped her face realizing we had been using the inverter for nearly 2 years without performing the simple regular maintenance of adding distilled water into the top.
Had I grown up in India, adding distilled water to the inverter would have been drilled into me by my father as the activity of “responsible adults” just like checking the tire pressure, changing the oil in the car, or cleaning the leaves out of the gutters. But since this is still a foreign land, one has to be told these things.
So who gets the blame for this? The shopowner who sold us the inverter? The man who installed it? Our neighbors for not reminding us sooner? A cross cultural training or relocation expert who left this nugget of information out?
No matter how complete your preparation is, there is always something that falls through the crack. Something left for that category of “learning the hard way”. So, instead of trying to figure out who is to blame, it’s better to focus on the kind of behaviors that can save you when (not if) these things happen.
- Keep local friends close to you and aware of your daily life. Had we not told my neighbor about the struggles we were having in casual conversation, we would have certainly seen the end of the inverter.
- Drop the “I can do it all myself” attitude. You can’t – not in India. Stop trying.
- Ask questions. We train Indians in the business world to be more assertive about asking questions, but the westerners often need it in the social world as they sometimes don’t want to “bother” anyone. (The fastest way to make friends in India is to be helpless and ask someone to do a favor for you.)
“Well, I guess we crashed the party,” my new American friend leaned over to whisper to me.
I was attending a Rotary Club event where clubs from three different cultures were gathering – India was hosting, with Malaysia and the US as guests. The meeting was to celebrate the clubs coming together and try to build stronger ties.
The Indian club started by playing a video on their recent work in a nearby village. The president gave a short speech and then read out each of the names of the visiting guests and their spouses and presented them ceremoniously with shawls and gifts.
The Malaysian club followed suit, playing a video highlighting their long and prestigious history. The president gave a speech and thanked their hosts presenting large gifts to the leadership and distributed mementos to all in attendance.
Then the American president stood up and said “Thanks for inviting us”. No video, no speech, no gifts. It was then that my new friend made his party-crashing statement.
To be fair, there were only two Americans compared with large groups of Malaysians and Indians, but it struck a cultural chord with me. Why is it that some cultures embrace and celebrate formality and others have nearly eliminated it altogether? Being American, I often find myself in situations where I know I should have done something more significant to receive a guest, or gone out and bought a gift for an occasion. Yet it usually comes too late.
India and most other Asian cultures have a rich heritage of gift giving and treating guests as god. The American response to guests reaches its apex with “Feel free to find something you like in the fridge!”.
This difference often creates clashes in the business world too. How many times has an Indian team arrived to an onsite project bearing engraved gifts and talking about the great historical partnership about to take place, only to be received with a handshake and an invitation to get their own coffee? Westerners of all walks would do well to adopt a little more ceremony in the way we welcome and act as guests.
Back to the Rotary night, my culturally intelligent balloon was inflating after noticing the gaffe my countrymen had made. However, it came to a huge pop when my Indian friend came up and asked me “Where did they go?”. Earlier, the American couple had politely said goodbye to me and I let them walk out of the room. . . alone . . .without walking them out. I quickly rushed with my friend to the entrance to find them waiting outside for their car. We talked with them for a while longer, thanked them for coming, and I realized how long the journey to acting as a Global Citizen can be!
While discussing gender diversity in a training program, I revealed the top five list of the most stressed women in the world according to a recent Nielsen Survey. I started at 5 and made my way up: Spain, Brazil, Russia, Mexico…India. One young male in the group jumped out of his seat and pumped his fist seeing that his women had cracked the top spot! ”Our women are number one!” was the expression on his face. We all had a good laugh, given what he was celebrating, and he sheepishly took the ensuing ragging.
In order to continue a celebration of Indian women, here is a small list of the many different roles the average Indian woman fulfills at one time:
1.) Mother - The bond between an Indian woman and her child is lifelong, and especially between a mother and son. I recently saw a sign for a large housing development company that the owner had named “Mother’s Nest”.
2.) Teacher - While very few women “home-school” in the traditional sense, I have yet to meet an Indian mother near exam time who is not spending every evening going over their children’s studies. This also contributes to the next role of:
3.) Learner – In an effort to stay prepared for their children’s studies, many women have to re-learn all the subjects themselves. It is a fairly common sight for a mother to spend her breaks at work sitting with the local IT guy refreshing herself on computer science before the exam.
4.) Daughter – While sons are traditionally supposed to be the ones to take care of parents as they age, you would be hard-pressed to find an Indian woman who did not spend significant time caring for her own parents. The bond and responsibilities are forever.
5.) Daughter-in-law – Potentially one of the most high pressure relationships. Many Indian woman enter a marriage by moving into a new home with a new family and new parents to care for as long as they live. There are a lot of expectations, which most women handle with an amazing amount of poise.
6.) Worker – From the woman carrying bricks on the worksite, to the cook making food, to the woman who owns the multi-million dollar company, women work hard in India. This probably adds to the stress more than anything. They perform at high-pressure jobs and then come home to situations where they still have a large list of duties and responsibilities that can’t be taken by anyone else.
Instead of cheering for their stress, a simple idea for the men of India might be to take up grilling or some other culinary art to ease the pressure at home. Let’s all work together to make Indian women #1 in something other than stress!
My wife’s SMS said, “Call as soon as you can” – never a great sign. I soon learned that my young son had fallen and cut his forehead and was off to the hospital. As my wife didn’t have a car, she asked our friendly “Uncle and Auntie” that we have known for over two years to help.
My neighbor drove my wife and son to the hospital where they quickly saw a doctor. Uncle waited at the hospital and purchased all the medicine needed for the quick patch up. He then drove them back home safely, recalling stories of his own children’s falls and scraps to make sure my wife didn’t feel guilty.
When I finally reached home, my son was already happily in bed and I was overwhelmed with a strong feeling of gratitude. I had to satisfy my uncontrollable American urge to go and immediately say “thank you” for the generous act. We appreciate it when people do nice things for us, but we also like to quickly acknowledge them.
I tried to chose my words carefully: “I am very thankful that you were here to take care of my son.” To which, my neighbor replied, “Never say ‘thank you’. Why else are we here besides doing these things?”
Perhaps it is dharma, or perhaps the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, but somewhere in the Indian mindset, there is a strong feeling that one should not say “Thank you” for doing something which is expected to be done. To say “Thanks” trivializes something like this to a simple transaction between strangers. To not say “Thanks” shows that there is a deeper relationship of assumed obligation that we will take care of each other regardless. To live in an Indian family is to live in a massive invisible safety net which sometimes requires you to adjust a bit for others, and also requires others to adjust for you without flinching.
Another friend living in India describes this cultural tension for him as adopting a “long-term view of reciprocity”. We from individualist cultures don’t like the idea of an ongoing “debt” to someone and prefer to live without these long-term obligations. I would even tell my parents “thank you” for doing the same for my child. However, being in India has opened my eyes to the beauty that exists when friends and family are willing to engage in such a deep relationship that the phrase “Thank you” loses the luster that we ascribe to it.
Thanks, India. Or rather, as I rephrased my response to neighbor, “It makes me so happy to know that my family is living in a place with such wonderful people all around us.”
I recently finished a training for an Indian company which is operating in the US. The focus of this particular session was on HR practices in the US – discrimination, harassment, retaliation, etc. Of particular interest was the list of 30 questions which are considered illegal to ask during interviews, and ways to get around those questions. This comes as a shock to most Indians where within the first few minutes of an interview, the candidate’s family status, potential marriages, health concerns, children’s nicknames, full genealogy, and meal preferences are made clear.
We looked at the difference between universalist cultures (those which make rules that apply to all people), and particularist cultures (those that depend more on context and relationship). While this distinction was helpful for these Indian managers to understand the “why” behind all of these regulations, they were still baffled at the extent to which American interviewers essentially shackled themselves when trying to identify new talent.
Later I was in a session with some French managers in India who were trying to develop a strategy for hiring and retaining talented young women, knowing that a majority of them would be leaving the job soon after marriage. They were trying to solve the tension of not applying a discriminatory policy while at the same time recognizing the realities that existed. Soon they realized they were operating in a different world with different rules, but still needed to respect their corporate policies.
The blend of India and the West often produces interesting mixes, one of which is when extremely “politically correct” cultures that are highly regulated in terms of discrimination practices try to operate in a world where knowing how old someone is and their medical background is seen as intelligent information which needs to be considered. When I sat in on my first interview in India, I was quite shocked at the kind of information that was directly asked (“Any plans for marriage?”), and which ultimately impacted the decision to bring them on or find a new candidate.
Can India be considered “pre-politically correct”? Will the tide of lawsuits and thick HR policies inevitably roll into India in the same way that burgers and pizzas have become part of the urban diet? Or will India remain fiercely practical in this standpoint, claiming that knowing if someone is about to get married is paramount to their hiring strategy? Or perhaps as India gains influence in the world, they will provide multinationals with a compromise to this difficult cultural issue?
As companies continue to expand both from and into India, these questions will come to the forefront. India has always managed these tensions with their “temporary adaptation”, understanding the pressing needs, but refusing to change its core beliefs and values. This effect on the world of HR and the idea of being “politically correct” will be one to watch closely in the coming years, and one that the Global Leader will see coming and prepare for. Until an equilibrium is found, Global Adjustments will continue to stand in the gap and help build cultural understanding and strategy.
For more information on the sessions mentioned in this blog, along with our other offerings, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
In today’s global world, the situation is typical. You are traveling to a new place you’ve never been before and have a fear of making a fool of yourself. Then suddenly you remember that you have a friend who is from that country or lived there for a long time. Instant success, right? All you have to do is call them up and they’ll be able to tell you everything there is to know about your destination.
However, the discussion inevitably ends up somewhat similar to this:
You: “So, tell me about (country)”
Friend: “Yeah, it’s really great. You have to try the food.”
You: “Yes, I’ll definitely do that. Is there anything else I should know?”
Friend: “Well, the people are really nice…”
In reality, it is difficult for people to talk about their own culture. Even for those who are living outside of it, there is a great difficulty to put to words exactly what makes your corner of the world unique and what to tell someone who is going there. Some of it is the fish not being able to see the water he’s swimming in, and some of it is that it is hard to describe something so general in very specific terms.
Therefore, it can be very helpful for you as the traveler to have a few questions up your sleeve which can help your friend open up give you something more than the local cuisine and how well-intentioned the people are. Here are a few things to start out with:
- Who are the local heroes where you come from? Learning about heroes is a great way to see what and who a culture values, and how to emphasize that part of your own personality!
- How can I make a great first impression? Watch your friend’s eyes light up as she gets excited about giving you the inside information on what really makes them feel great.
- What types of things get covered in the local news? This is a good way to learn small talk topics and how to make quick connections.
- If my meeting is set for 11am, when would I be early/late? Punctuality varies from culture to culture and it is good to know when you are supposed to show up. This answer is often different from business and social situations.
- What are you most proud of in your culture? It will usually take your friend a little while to ponder, but undoubtedly they will find something to smile about and you can use that topic as a compliment when you visit.
- How would you define a successful person in (country)? Success is also a moving target for most people, but when you hear someone describing the ideal lifestyle, you can learn a lot about what everyone is striving for.
There are many more things you can ask to dig deeper, but these should get you off to a great start!
Just this last month, the German pharmaceutical company “Chemie Grunenthal” apologized after it was confirmed that the morning-sickness drug they produced was related to birth defects. This of course was 50 years after it was pulled off the shelves.
To admit a mistake in front of your world can be a dangerous thing. How does it affect your brand, your customer base, your legacy? The response to a mistake can make or break how you bounce back from it.
Looking at how companies apologize in different cultures brings a lot of insight and guidance when it comes to the art of saying “I’m sorry”. The opening example is fairly typical of a German company which will often take decades to admit to any official mistake.
Japanese executives who come from a face-saving culture with a high value on quality are routinely forced to apologize for not meeting high expectations. When Toyota had to issue a massive recall in 2009, the president of the company used words like “agonizing”, “extremely regrettable” and “deep remorse”.
When the American airline JetBlue had a serious logistics failure keeping passengers stuck on airplanes for several hours, they issued a public apology. Their COO did his best to come across as a regular guy who is just trying to put things back in order.
Here in India, the word “apology” is most frequently found after the word “demand”, usually referring to an outraged group or political party which wants someone to be held accountable. Sensitivities run high, but it is often difficult to find someone at the top level willing to accept responsibility.
One thing which is common among all apologies is the fact that people are usually not satisfied with them. Either they are not sincere enough, or their method of making amends is not fair. It seems that everyone is using a different scale to judge whether an apology was “good enough” or not, and it’s hard to get a perfect score.
You may not find yourself as the spokesperson for a massive tragedy, but the ability to apologize in different cultures is definitely a part of the Global Leader’s skill set. Author Gary Chapman has said that there are 5 “languages” or elements to an apology:
- Expressing regret – “I’m sorry”
- Accepting responsibility – “I’m wrong”
- Making restitution – “How can I make this right?”
- Genuine repentance – “I will do my best to never do that again”
- Requesting forgiveness – “Please forgive me”
One of those probably means a lot more than the other ones to you depending on your upbringing and culture. If you ever find yourself in a place where you need to give an apology (in the business world or outside of it), think through all the different “languages” and make sure you are addressing the one that is most important to your audience. Speaking directly to your listener’s most important concern will help you and them move forward to a better place.
Getting it right can not only narrow the cultural divide, but actually help you to fit right in with your foreign associates
The other day I said to one of our lead trainers in cross-culture, “Neil, why don’t you come over tomorrow and we can shoot the breeze on some of the thoughts we had on the project.” He replied, “Sure, let’s chew the fat.”
These Americanisms leave me chuckling, but I also realise that as new managers, we are likely to come across idiomatic usage from so many different countries that we’re likely to be all at sea (read confused).
Idioms are used by all cultures. People of each background take these usages for granted, assume they’re universally understood, and often feel a mere literal translation will be enough to convey the same meaning to people of other backgrounds. But that’s not really so. Often, we end up getting the wrong end of the stick (which, of course, means misunderstanding what was meant) when our expat colleagues use idiomatic speech.
Piece of cake?
I’ve found myself in such a situation quite often. And often, I’ve had others telling me stories of how they’ve either misunderstood or been misunderstood. I’ve put together some of the common phrases in British and American English, as well as some popular usages from other countries, to give you a taste of how being on the same page isn’t a piece of cake! (Translate as: it isn’t easy for multiple people to understand the discussion the same way).
Let’s start with the things I misunderstood initially. Getting down to the wire — when my American client said this about his project, I thought it was something to do with having a slim chance and made suitable sympathetic noises, but it turned out to mean getting close to the deadline.
“Six of one, half a dozen of the other,” my sister in San Francisco replied when I asked her which was harder to get — admission in college or high school. What she meant was it’s the same. Same difference, as we say here in India
“Manian, tell me about this new office project team, I want the whole nine yards,” a client once said to me. I thought this expression had its origin in the sari, which was nine yards long, and set out to explain that it was commonly six yards these days. But the expression actually originated in their sport and meant “I want all the details.”
On the other hand, if someone tells you, “Let’s cut to the chase,” it means just the opposite, the same as “What’s the bottom line?” meaning, give me what I need to know in a nutshell. Rambling on after they use this phrase means we don’t “get it,” and the client is likely to find us tiresome.
Joe, a Canadian friend I was coaching in the intricacies of Indian etiquette, once threw up his hands and said to me with a groan, “I can’t win for losing,” by which he meant that no matter what he did, he could never be right in the Indians’ eyes!
Again, you may think you know a language, but literal translation can leave you extremely confused.
An Indian fluent in English confessed he was puzzled by his expat boss, who repeatedly told his staff, “We can’t wait till the cows come home.”
“What cows? Is he using this because it’s India?” he asked. He was as amused as I was after I explained that the boss was only telling his team to hurry up. Indianisms can be just as confusing. One worried team leader from Singapore, whom we were training, asked at our session, “Why do Indians want to get intimate with me on e-mail?” We had to explain to her that when an Indian writes “I wish to intimate you…” It only means “I wish to inform you …”!
Sometimes, it may not be even a phrase, it could be a gesture, accompanied by one word. The Japanese and the Koreans use a similar mannerism — they sort of flex their biceps and accompany it with a word roughly translated as ‘fight’ or ‘fighting’. They don’t mean to pick a quarrel with you — they’re telling you to ‘Keep it up!’
Sure, knowing how to converse idiomatically with one’s colleagues, irrespective of nativity, is not as essential as communicating deadlines or project instructions; but it does add that extra layer to communication. It provides a foundation of cultural understanding that can prove invaluable to long-standing professional relationships.
Idioms and expressions like the ones I’ve told you about come from the fields of sport, lifestyles of yore or contemporary practices in specific ethnic cultures.
For instance, the French say ‘a meal without cheese is like a lovely girl with one eye’ — fine dining and fancy cuisine are so important to France that many expressions have their roots in food. Understanding this makes it easy to appreciate that three-hour business meals are the norm in their culture too! And remember, if you understand your French guest to say that he’s trying to accommodate the sheep and the cabbage, he’s only telling you that he’s trying to please both sides in the business deal.
Then there are the polite euphemisms that different cultures use. Go sakinishitsureishimasu…I am sorry to be leaving before you — is a very polite way of parting if you are leaving a party or event before the Japanese guest you met there. Je m’eclipse is a good show-off expression for France, which says the same thing, I am sorry I am leaving before you, I am going to eclipse my way out.
Familiarising yourself with such habits of speech may seem a trivial thing to focus on, but it goes a long way in cross-cultural relationship-building.
It lessens the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, and using appropriate idioms and expressions makes you feel like one of ‘us’. So, make time for idioms. Use less of your own, and understand, then emulate other country-specific ones.
Ranjini Manian is Founder CEO of Global Adjustments, a relocation and cross-cultural services company. She can be contacted at email@example.com
This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 31, 2012 - Link to online text