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Culture and Misunderstanding

December 10, 2012

The sad consequences of the recent hoax call to King Edward’s Hospital in London have featured on world media and inevitably led to widespread discussion. Something that has struck me in the course of my conversations is the extent to which cultural background appears to affect opinions.

As someone raised in a society that finds pranks amusing, I see the actions of the Australian DJs as perhaps misjudged, but certainly not malign. Indeed, if anyone is to be blamed, it is surely the executive managers of the radio station who appear to have approved such behavior. But this type of hoax is by no means unusual in countries such as the UK, US and Australia and had it not been for the subsequent death of the nurse who took the initial call, the event would already have been forgotten.

In my conversations with friends from around the world, I have come to realize that the concept of such hoaxes is simply alien to their culture. They cannot understand why anyone would want to play a trick of this sort and see it as cruel, not funny. As a result, if they were themselves victim of such a call, they would feel a terrible burden of responsibility for having trusted the hoaxer.

As I think about this in the context of global communications and negotiations, it makes me realize just how little many of us understand about the way that the nuances of language and behavior may be perceived by those outside our culture. Indeed, it also leads me to wonder how often I may be misinterpreting the intent of others.

One Comment
  1. Very good post, Tim.

    I’ve been training people (and writing training programs) on International Purchasing both as an employee and an independent small business for more than 15 years. That’s after starting and managing international procurement offices for a major electronics manufacturer. Right from the start, and based on consensus from my coworkers, I put cultural and communication differences at the start of the training program. We all believed that cultural misunderstandings were the biggest obstacle to success. We also believed that mastering the topic gave a huge advantage in buyer-seller negotiations. These two topics take about 20% of the two day training program.

    The topic is surprisingly easy to understand if it is properly structured. (That’s if you limit the scope to work-related issues.) I use a list of seven key cultural differences and one key communication difference (beyond language issues.)

    The key cultural differences are

    1. Power distance (how people relate to others who have more power)
    2. Uncertainty avoidance
    3. Individualism
    4. Buyer-seller rank
    5. Need for harmony
    6. Attitude toward time
    7. Relative importance of personal relationships

    (People who have studied cultural differences will recognize the first three as being originated by Geert Hofstede.)

    Nearly every business related cultural confusion can be related back to one or more of these key differences.

    Training programs on international purchasing are available both live and on-line. Much of it is also relevant to sales efforts. Details are on my web site, globalsupplytraining.com.

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