Coping with culture clash.

Author:Versi, Anver
Position:Brief Article - Editorial

Have you ever felt like pulling out your hair in frustration because somebody you are doing business with in another country keeps messing you about? They don't return your calls promptly, they do not stick to the schedule, they say they will do something today and then don't do it for several days, they make unreasonable demands, they are rude in their communications - the list can go on and on. "Why can't people just get on with business normally instead of making life more difficult than it already is?" is the exasperated cry from any number of executives.

The trouble, as more and more international executives are finding out is that both parties are 'getting on with business normally' but what is normal for one is abnormal for another.

Another phrase for this is 'culture clash' or 'culture shock'. Culture clash has cost international companies billions of dollars in lost business and led to the sinking of otherwise sea-worthy enterprises. It took a long time for international business to realise that business culture is not a one-size-firs-all phenomenon. Different parts of the world have different business cultures and these are so normal as far as they are concerned that they just cannot understand why anybody else would want to do things differently. There is a name for this - it is called ethnocentrism.

My way is the right way!

Ethnocentrism means 'my way is the right way' but since it is subconscious, you are not aware of it - you simply think of it as 'normal' so when people do things differently, you start to pull your hair out because 'you just can't understand why they are messing me about.'

This inability to understand the other's business culture has cost multinationals so much that many have now put 'culture awareness' at the top of their management agenda. In the US it is called 'diversity awareness' and it is considered so important that diversity gurus are being paid as much as $50,000 per session to speak at conferences.

Africa is probably at the top of the pile in the culture-clash stakes. Take for example the time-fixation of Westerners or people of Western origin. They are always looking at their watches and become very upset when someone does not keep an appointment. They talk of 'African time' which means that the person you are expecting will be there when he is there - never mind what time he said he would come. He may come early, on time, later or even tomorrow. He is here, so what is the problem?

This might seem...

To continue reading