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Successfully dealing with multiculturalism during the process of business internationalization

It seems that in the world of business there are no longer frontiers. Internationalization has become the main objective of all organizations. Albeit, companies that want to conquer the whole world, and especially the world’s emerging and most densely populated countries (BRIC[1]), are confronted with the challenge of cultural diversity and the duty to respond to it as the key to success.

Indeed, cultural difference is one of the most latent problems which a business faces in its process of internationalization. This is due to a lack of knowledge about foreign cultures, about the way they work and do business, as well as an inability to adapt to the corporate policies of other countries. In my view, this is due to the deeply rooted world view that the individual has regarding himself or herself, as well as the conception of one’s own culture.

For example, in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Holland, Germany, England, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, etc., employees tend to pursue personal interest at the workplace. In other words, they have a highly developed sense of responsibility and commitment in order to be efficient, aiming to reach the best results. In short, these are individualistic cultures.

At the other end of the spectrum, are more community-oriented cultures in which collective interests take precedence over personal ones, that is, the company-employee relationship is a moral or “family” type relationship with strong personal involvement. Communication is more diplomatic, courteous and imprecise. The countries of Central America and South America, Spain, Japan, China, India, etc., should be included within this group.

Dealing with these differences as efficiently as possible, that is, working with teams from different cultures and interacting and negotiating with persons having a different nationality from one’s own, requires, in addition to technical skills, cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence, understood to mean (i) the ability to empathize and identify with others; (ii) intercultural communication skills; an enquiring and open mind; (iv) the desire to break down cultural barriers; and (v) the capacity for self-criticism and to determine how other cultures perceive ours.

Thanks to my experience in Shanghai during four years I experienced how important was to develop the abovementioned skills in order to interact with Chinese people. In fact, I discovered that certain rituals and protocols are crucial if we want to seduce a Chinese business person.

For example, in a business meeting in China, greeting the person who is most senior is critical, irrespective of whether or not this person is a man or a woman. In other words, respect for hierarchy is essential, as opposed to what happens in our culture, where women are given priority.

Furthermore, giving and receiving a Business Card is not a mere formality, but more like a ritual: it is done with both hands. The interlocutor has to read it and show interest, otherwise, it is considered disrespectful.

Gan Bei! An expression to which one cannot remain indifferent! In a business dinner with Chinese business people, when one of them says ¡Gan Bei! it means that everyone must gulp down their drink in one shot and then show that the glass is empty. Throughout dinner several toasts are raised to create a more personal bond in business dealings. Nevertheless, familiarity has its limits: one should never talk politics and avoid social issues.

[1]BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India and China.