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Crossing the "Great Divide" of Culture

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/9/2013

“We don’t really notice our own culture; we kind of take it for granted. When you enter another culture, you’re looking for things you’re not used to seeing,” said Andrew Masland, senior manager for NEC Corporation of America, at this past week’s 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, in a discussion entitled “Across the Great Divide: Managing Alliances for Success Given Cultural Differences,” given with copresenter Judy Mirkin, director of global alliance and business development for Riverbed Technology.

It becomes critical to do this looking across boundaries when entering into alliances with companies and individuals from other cultures. But “culture” may in fact be a broader term than it might at first appear. Cultural divides can occur across geographies, such as North America, Europe, Japan, Asia Pacific, South America, and Africa; across companies from different industries such as IT, education, and health care; and even within one company, where dividing lines can arise between different product groups, business groups, and geographies.

National culture and language differences may be the most obvious “great divides,” however. Whatever culture your alliance takes you into, Mirkin advised alliance professionals to be aware of and sensitive to the very real divergences in behavior and thinking that may mean the difference between success and failure in an alliance. “Take the time to learn [that culture], and then embrace the differences,” she urged. “And just because you don’t speak the language, don’t stop listening.”

Examples of cultural differences that Masland and Mirkin mentioned run the gamut from eating dinner at nine o’clock (Spain), to not answering emails in preference to oral communication (Arab countries), to what may seem to Americans like rather abrupt and frank discussions (Germany), to an emphasis on doing business via mobile phones (western and central Africa, where Western-style infrastructure is often lacking).

Learning foreign languages is great—even mastering a simple phrase like “thank you” is a plus, and shows your alliance partners that you have taken some time to learn at least a little of their culture—but even in situations where interpreters are relied upon, Mirkin pointed out some things to be aware of. She encouraged getting some time with them first so they understand what is going on and are thoroughly briefed.

“Invite them in and make them as much a part of your meeting as you can,” she said. “Ask, ‘Did I miss anything? Was anything lost?’ Document the meeting and confirm so everyone leaves with the same marching orders and understanding.” Also, even when using an interpreter, you still want to look the person you’re talking to in the eye and speak to them directly—they may know some of your language, so it’s a bad idea to say to the interpreter, “Tell him that…,” Mirkin noted. Awareness of nonverbal communication such as body language is also key: “When language lets you down, look for the cues.”

In short, dealing with other cultures in alliance work is a matter of learning as much as you can, being aware of potential issues, and being sensitive to differences that may cause misunderstandings if not handled skillfully, according to both Masland and Mirkin. Flexibility and openness are critical, and it’s best if potential issues can be handled ahead of time and up front.

“The important thing is, what will work?” said Mirkin.

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