Q: Aren’t cultural differences disappearing? Aren’t business cultures all over the world coming together?
A: This is a very popular question. People ask it because of the ease of electronic communication and the vastly expanded use of the internet these days. My answer is, “Yes and no.”
Yes, globalization and technology – the internet, email, phone, Skype and web conferencing – along with migration, student-exchanges and the thousands of books and courses on intercultural interaction have indeed expanded the number of business people in today’s world who are able to understand and deal with cultural differences.
But unfortunately culturally competent people still represent a tiny fraction of the global population. While more people gain cultural awareness every year, at the same time thousands of brand-new businesses enter the global marketplace without a clue about how to effectively sell, buy and communicate effectively across cultures.
A recent Global Management workshop I did for 25 SME managers in a Western deal-focused culture illustrates this issue. “Tom,” a bright tech-savvy manager, after surfing the web for hours had found exactly the right Chinese business partner for his young company. So Tom sent the Guangzhou firm a two-page email with all necessary information details and waited impatiently for the reply. When a week passed with no answer Tom resent the message. And then he sent it again…and again…and again.
Weeks later the prospective Chinese partner finally replied to the ninth mail, and the two companies are now in the process of negotiating a deal. Tom asked me, “Why did it take so long for the Chinese side to start a discussion? It must have been obvious from my email that cooperation with us would benefit them.”
My answer to his question related to differing expectations and assumptions. Deal-focused Tom was unaware that relationship-focused Chinese usually expect a new contact to be introduced by someone they trust. Had Tom understood that, he could have approached his country’s consulate to arrange a proper introduction, thus saving considerable time. And in business, time is money.
In this case neither side was able to bridge the gap of differing expectations. It may be a surprise to those who ask these questions that both companies were managed by young people who still had a lot to learn about differences in business behavior. So no, cultural differences are not (yet) disappearing.