To really understand a different culture it is imperative to look at how it has been shaped by history. Living under a hard core communist regime is going to create very different cultural survival traits to living under a newly formed democracy. Having to endure colonial rule will take different survival skills to growing up with the ingrained belief that anyone who works hard enough can become the President of the country.
A major challenge for executives crossing cultural boarders is being mindful of the impact that these recent historical events have had. It was only after the second world war that many of the world’s colonies gained their independence. As eloquently described by Samuel Huntington (2003 p. 51)
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas of values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; Non- Westerners never do.”
I often think of Huntington’s comments when l overheard my fellow countrymen discuss their concerns over the increasing numbers of foreign investors, especially those from China, who are purchasing prime Australian agricultural land. Few have considered how Chinese stakeholders may view their concerns. Many may consider that the British used nothing more sophisticated than brute force to initially claim this same land. In contrast, these foreign investors see themselves as paying a premium price for supplying much needed overseas capital to Australia’s Agriculture sector. Such a sentiment was echoed by Charles Tang from the Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Rio de Janeiro during an interview by Justin Rowlatt (The Chinese are coming 2011). Rowlatt asked if there should be concern about China’s growing trading prowess. Tang replied that unlike these responsible for the British empire who came and took what they wanted by force, the Chinese simply want to trade. Numerous parts of the world who were once dominated by imperialist masters have not forgotten the devastating impacts colonisation had on their countries. Western managers would do well to be mindful of this when working with stakeholders from these now emerging markets.
Therefore, our history is, for the most part, responsible for many of our ingrained value systems which are passed down from generation to generation. As Meyer (2015) explained common values systems work well for people who have not had to venture from their home culture. However, when individuals go to new regions they are likely to take their firmly entrenched concepts of right and wrong with them. They often fail to question that their new colleagues or clients have a totally different perspective of correct and incorrect behaviour. Worst still, the foreigner may have preconceived ideas that their own values are actually superior to those adhered to in the country they are visiting. This is known as an Ethnocentric mindset especially when the foreigner tries to impose his or her values and practises on those around them.
This Ethnocentric mindset often stops companies maximising the potential a new market has to offer. A German expatriate once told me that he had just completed a 3 year assignment in Turkey. I asked him how he had enjoyed the experience. He answered ‘I loved it , except for the first 6 weeks’. I asked what was so challenging about this initial period. He paused for a moment and then said, Well , I guess everything improved once I stopped trying to change 500 Turks and simply changed myself ‘. Of course most people would simply say this is common sense, however, human beings often struggle with any change. Furthermore, a foreign assignment is asking for an individual to deal with momentous upheaval. Therefore, it is no wonder so many initially revert to subconscious value systems and cultural behavioural norms even if such practises are of little or no help in their new environment.
Meyer, E. (2015). “WHEN CULTURE DOESN’T TRANSLATE.” Harvard Business Review:
Huntington, S. P. (2003). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order New York, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks p. 51
Grandison, S. (2011). The Chinese Are Coming. London, BBC: 2:25.