Who has the exotic culture?

We are all heroes of our own life stories, and everyone else is just a bit part player. We are like medieval scientists: we think we are at the centre of our universe. As a global team player, we need to recognise that the world does not revolve around us, disconcerting as that may be.

It was Copernicus who showed that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, a view which did not go down well with the Church at the time. We need our own Copernican revolution where we see our world as it is. Because we think we are at the centre of the world, we naturally assume that our way of doing things is normal.

As a Brit, I can believe that watching a cricket can be exciting when it finishes in a draw after five days of play. It is a sport where they break for tea. We think this is normal, like fish and chips.

We only realise how exotic our beliefs are when we see them from the outside. The Japanese have this mysterious and exotic habit of bowing to each other. Shaking hands is much more straightforward, isn’t it? Well, no it isn’t. For a start it is a very unhygenic form of greeting: there are few better ways of spreading germs from one person to another.

But now try the shaking hands test: explain to someone who has never had to shake hands before, what the rules are. Easy? When do you shake hands with who; how do you know when they want to shake hands; how do you show that you are ready to shake hands; how hard do you press and for how long? At least with Japanese bowing there are clear rules about who should bow first, deepest and longest. If there is any doubt, a quick glance at each other’s business cards (meishi) will establish the order of precedence. And let’s not even get on to Europeans and kissing….

As a global executive you have no chance of acquiring all the local cultural knowledge required in each country. You are not an anthropologist, and you do not have time to do an anthropological study of every culture you encounter. But you do need real cultura intelligence.

Cultural intelligence starts by recongising that we are not the centre of the universe, and that our ways of doing things are not the only way or even the best way. Other ways also work and we should respect them. Culturally intelligent executives quickly learn, they pick up cultural cues and the respond and adapt fast.

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