When in Rome, Know the Rules


Two and half years ago, NASA sent astronauts Shannon Lucid and John Blaha to Star City, Russia, to train at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in preparation for their tours of duty on the Russian space station Mir. The day before the two flew to Russia for the year-long training course, Ray Leki, director of the State Department's Overseas Briefing Center, a facility that prepares U.S. government employees for overseas assignments, got a phone call from Houston.

"Hey, there-is there anything you could tell us over the phone that would help our astronauts work with the Russians?" the NASA manager on the other end of the line asked Leki.

That was the extent of cross-cultural training at NASA in 1995. But times have changed. These days, a course in understanding Russian cultural habits is part of the program for crews of space shuttles that will be docking with Mir. And NASA doesn't only brief astronauts who'll be living inches away from Russian cosmonauts. NASA enrolls technicians, engineers and upper management working on the international space station project in one-day cross-cultural training seminars, too.

Along with NASA, other federal agencies have become fans of cross-cultural training in recent years. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has sent its officers to seminars on how to communicate with Haitian immigrants. The Federal Aviation Administration trains its employees on working with airport personnel of different cultures. The Drug Enforcement Administration sends its agents to workshops to improve their ability to negotiate with Mexicans.

Still, many in government view cross-cultural training in the same way that their private sector colleagues view it-as unnecessary. If travelers use common sense when they travel and work overseas, the perception goes, they will be able to communicate effectively with their foreign counterparts.

In this belief, American business travelers are unlike those of other industrialized nations, says Gary Ferraro, director of the Intercultural Training Institute, which is affiliated with the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. "There are 11,000 Americans doing business in Japan and only 5 percent of them speak Japanese," he observes. "How many German or Japanese firms send employees to the United States who can't speak English?" Private firms in other industrialized countries invest more in cross-cultural training programs than do U.S. companies. Only 35 percent of U.S. firms do any pre-departure cross-cultural training, according to "Effective Expatriate Training," a report that appears in Expatriate Management (Quorum Books, 1996).

Cross-cultural experts say it's not a coincidence that about twice as many Americans fail to complete overseas assignments compared to European or Japanese executives.

To Speak, or Not to Speak

Common sense is not enough to prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication, interculturalists say. "Common sense . . . cannot be neutral," Richard D. Lewis writes in When Cultures Collide (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1996). "It is derived from experience, but experience is culture-bound. It is common sense in Germany or Sweden to form an orderly bus queue. In Naples or Rio it is common sense to get on the bus before anyone else."

Neither is sharing a profession sufficient to override cultural differences, say the experts. In When Cultures Collide, Lewis goes to great lengths to show that while it's true that managers all over the world discuss proposals, conduct meetings and draw up contracts, executives of different nationalities act in strikingly different ways. Lewis' examples in the book include:

  • Silence. "A silent reaction to a business proposal would seem negative to American, German, French, Southern European and Arab executives. To Japanese and Finnish executives, what is not said is regarded as important and lulls in conversation are considered restful, friendly and appropriate."
  • Humor. "In the USA, sarcasm, kidding and feigned indignation are regarded as factors which move the meeting along and get more done in less time. Germans find humor out of place during negotiations. Business is serious and should be treated as such, without irrelevant stories or distractions. Japanese also fail to see any benefit in introducing humor into business meetings. They will laugh if they are aware that you have told a joke, but that is out of sheer politeness."
  • Contracts. "To a Swiss, German, Scandinavian, American or British person [a contract] is something that has been signed in order to be adhered to, but a Japanese regards a contract as a starting document to be rewritten and modified as circumstances require. A South American sees it as an ideal which is unlikely to be achieved, but which is signed to avoid argument."
  • Mistakes. "While mistakes by German executives are not easily forgiven and American managers are summarily fired if they lose money, there is a high tolerance in French companies of blunders on the part of management."
  • Leadership. "In Germany, more than anywhere else, there is no substitute for experience. [In the United States,] leadership means getting things done, improving the standard of living, finding short cuts to prosperity, making money for oneself, one's firm and its shareholders. In Malaysia and Indonesia, status is inherited, not earned, but leaders are expected to be paternal, religious, sincere and above all, gentle."

Talking about different cultures' social practices and attitudes strikes many Americans as an exercise in stereotyping individuals. "It's a dicey situation," admits Steven Jones, a consultant with the San Francisco-based East-West Business Strategies. Jones designed and teaches the Russian cross-cultural training program at NASA's Johnson Space Center for employees involved in the Russian-American Mir/Alpha space station project. "I can't tell you what my own motivations are half the time, and here I am telling you what Russians think? . . . No one wants me to speak for you. . . . But in cultural groups, certain predictable stuff happens."

How Can We Get Along?

"Everyone perceives their own culture as being objective reality, and that's where the problem is," says Jones.

Different cultures live by different sets of rules, Jones says. "No one tells you the rules; growing up, you just get it." In fact, he says, the only time most people are even aware that cultural rules exist in their own society is when someone breaks them. For example, when Americans get in an elevator, they turn towards the doors and space themselves equidistant from each other. If someone were to face backward and stand six inches from an American passenger in an otherwise empty elevator, the American's reaction most likely would be scorn-"what's wrong with this guy?"-or fear.

A good cross-cultural training program provides executives with more than a list of social customs to memorize.

"Everyone asks me, 'please just fax me a list of dos and don'ts,' " says Jones. But learning when to bow and when to give out business cards is only a small component of becoming culturally literate, he cautions. "People think, 'If I know the rules, we'll get along.' But look at the divorce rate in America. We're all using the same rules, but it doesn't mean we're communicating."

There are four components to learning how to communicate across cultures, as Jones teaches it:

  • Awareness. Recognizing that different cultures live by different rules.
  • Culture-specific knowledge. Learning about another culture's social practices.
  • Emotional management. Observing your own emotional response to these practices.
  • Skills. Figuring out how to operate independent of your emotions. "You may never become emotionally comfortable with using other cultures' rules," says Jones. You can, however, develop strategies that will help you cope.

Consider the following scenario, says Jones: In Russia, it is usual for people waiting to draw money from an automated teller machine to stand in a huddle around the person using the machine rather than stand in a line a few feet away as is done in the United States. A culturally insensitive executive at an ATM in Russia might be frightened by the crowd and lash out at them or walk away without completing his transaction.

In contrast, an executive that had undergone cross-cultural training would recognize that there is no universal rule on ATM-use; expect to be surrounded by a crowd of Russians at the machine; feel uneasy that people were looking over his shoulder; but be prepared to concentrate on withdrawing his money quickly and leaving.

Timing of training is important. Often, Jones says, organizations don't hire cross-cultural trainers until there's trouble-and for some international ventures, that's too late. In a business relationship, just as in a personal relationship, Jones observes, "trust can be damaged in the blink of an eye, and that damage might be irreparable. . . . The issue is being proactive so you don't mess up the relationship."

Where to Find It

The State Department offers cross-cultural training to federal employees at its National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Va. The training is not of the country-specific dos and taboos variety; rather, "it's an attitude that permeates everything," says Terri Williams, training coordinator at the facility's Overseas Briefing Center. For example, native speakers teach the training center's language courses, so employees learn about interacting with citizens of the country to which they will be traveling at the same time that they're conjugating verbs. In the process of dispensing information about regional geography and politics, the training center's area studies courses draw attention to the origins of different countries' value systems.

Any federal agency can pay for an employee to take a course at the NFATC, although language courses are restricted to foreign affairs agency employees and space in other courses is allotted to foreign affairs agency personnel first.

The Overseas Briefing Center can arrange cross-cultural workshops on demand. "To the extent we can, we will adapt and tailor our workshops to the agency's needs," says OBC director Leki. The OBC is mandated by Congress to recover its costs, so it charges for its services.

Federal offices located outside Washington can contact the OBC for referrals to public-sector cross-cultural training resources in their area.

Employees don't have to be involved in a major international venture to benefit from cross-cultural training-it can help a NIST scientist get more out of that international conference in Europe she attends once a year, for example. However, federal agencies tend to be reluctant to spend scarce training funds on educating travelers individually about other cultures.

The Overseas Briefing Center's Terri Williams says feds who are on their own when it comes to preparing themselves to do business with international colleagues should scour the business section of their local bookstores for cross-cultural advice books. "The number of these books has more than quadrupled in recent years," she says. Washington-based federal travelers can consult the country guides, Craighead's Business Reports and cross-cultural theory books at the drop-in information center at the Overseas Briefing Center, located on the NFATC campus in Arlington, Va. The information center is a free resource for all federal employees embarking on or considering an overseas assignment.

For information on cross-cultural training workshops at the OBC, call (703) 302-7274.

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