Why Culture Matters When You Go Global

Knowing how to shake hands and give gifts is nice when you go abroad. But good etiquette isn’t the whole of understanding culture.

Leaders who start doing work globally get a lot of etiquette advice about different countries—people in Brazil like to eat at such-and-such a time, for instance, or people in China prefer to greet each other in such-and-such a way. It’s not a bad idea to have those kind of tips handy, if only to avoid an early faux pas or two. But in some ways those tips do a disservice to what we mean when we talk about cultural differences—and  neglecting the depth of those differences can have a bottom-line impact.

In “When Culture Doesn’t Translate,” an article in the latest Harvard Business Review, author and global business scholar Erin Meyer explores some of the less obvious cultural differences that can stymie North American organizations doing work abroad. One issue, for instance, involves what she calls implicit communication—the ways we call, email, or simply talk to one another that we tend to take for granted. “When companies begin to expand internationally, implicit communication stops working,” she writes, explaining that cues that are common when two Americans communicate get lost in translation. “The more we work with people from other cultures in far-flung locations, the less we pick up on subtle meaning and the more we fall victim to misunderstanding and inefficiency.”

If you’re going to go in with that gun-slinging American approach, it won’t work.

Meyer points to a couple of direct examples of this disconnect. A company doing work in Thailand assumed their partners there were disinterested because they weren’t jumping in to talk during conference calls, but that kind of intervention isn’t a cultural norm among Thais; managers in Google’s French office were initially baffled by the tech giant’s accentuate-the-positive approach to performance reviews. “After five years at Google France, I can tell you we are now a group of French people who give negative feedback in a very un-French way,” one manager told Meyer.

Five years. Make a note of that. In the past year, as I’ve spent time listening to association leaders speak at length about their experiences for Global Growth Strategies, it’s clear to me that successful global associations not only comprehend the need for the long view, but they know that success often has as much to do with relationships built than deals struck. And relationships take time.  “Business, we know, is all about relationships anywhere, but in China, it’s relationships on steroids,” said one association executive. “If you’re going to go in with that gun-slinging American approach, it won’t work.”

Which is to say that understanding the culture of the country or region you’ve decided to explore isn’t something you do after you’ve devised your market strategy to do work there—understanding culture is part of the strategy. As Meyer puts it, “Companies that don’t plan for how individual employees and the organization as a whole will adapt to the realities of a global marketplace will sooner or later find themselves stumbling because of unnoticed cultural potholes.”

That point was echoed recently during a discussion about partnerships that ASAE’s International Section Council took part in at the Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit. The participants had plenty of advice to share about handshakes and registration habits and learning styles and the like, but when it came to cultural differences, the goal was to understand partners’ needs and  ways of communicating on a deeper level. “The key is figuring out what the motivators are for that culture, versus what are the motivators for an American,” said Howard A. Wallack, Global Markets Executive at the Society for Human Resource Management.

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t study up on matters of what to wear and how to meet and saying hello and all of the other things that come along with lubricating relationships in a new place. They’re important. But those matters are just on the surface of what we talk about when we talk about cultural differences. Getting a deeper understanding of what distinguishes your way of doing business from another’s is both good business sense and an elemental part of what associations do—spread  their mission.

What are some of the deeper cultural differences you’ve seen in your global efforts, and how do you address them? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!