Intercultural competence as powerful recourse for growth

Other countries other customs, a common phrase in Germany.

On my backpacker trip around the world in 2002/ 2003 I was invited to a business dinner by a Chinese in Peking where I tried pig’s feet for the first time in my life which was said to be a delicacy in China. Denying to eat them would have meant an offence against Chinese politeness and culture. An Indian friend who lived in Finland for a while and went back to India explained to me before saying good-bye, that I under none circumstances should look back when leaving because that would bring bad luck to the both of us. Visiting my previous student colleague from Germany in her home country South Korea in Seoul at her workplace, a school, the students asked if me and my partner were married was commented by my friend the teacher as a rude question.

In Germany you should shake hands, in most Asian countries not. In Germany, punctuality is expected, but in Spain, for example, one quarter of an hour late is still on time. Germans are said to be well organized and meetings are carried out efficiently with clear goals. Attending business meetings wearing leisure clothes might be o.k. in Finland, in Germany not following the dress code might bring an expression of disregard into some participant’s faces. A Finn suggesting to go to the sauna together after a business meeting might provoke astonished eyes in Germany if the Finnish cultural background is not explained properly. In Germany most public saunas are mixed saunas and people go in there naked! Trying to learn some phrases like “Good morning!” or “Nice to meet you!” in the language of the host is usually seen as a polite gesture. …as long as you don’t do it like me… “Mitä tämä paska on?” Me, in my first job as trainee in Finland, asking about the name of the dessert on the table at Easter. For readers who don’t speak Finnish: pasha (a delicious dessert made of curd) would have been the right word. The other one means “shit”.

Those who are not aware of these cultural differences quickly become frustrated and run the risk of behaving inappropriately in the eyes of others. A good cooperation is then no longer possible. As a result, business trips and assignments of employees to foreign locations fail and international teams become incapacitated. The result might be frustration on both sides.

However, if the cultural characteristics are taken into account, these images change again. The mere assessment gives way to understanding. The own point of view is extended which ensures better results. The (working) world has become increasingly international in recent decades: Finnish companies, from small to medium-sized companies and large co-operations, have locations abroad, have business relations with other countries or even have a very international workforce abroad themselves. In addition, international companies enter the Finnish market looking for chances for growth.

Intercultural competence is one of the key qualifications: not only does it make it easier to deal with others, it also helps to classify behaviors accordingly and protect against frustration on both sides. Those who know the cultural background of the respective business partner will have a better base for negotiating successfully.

How to prepare oneself: ask friends and colleagues, when travelling abroad, keep your senses open and professional cultural guidance is available nowadays. What if you step into a “Fettnäpfchen” and you don’t behave according to the etiquette although you have tried to prepare yourself properly?

What about a smile, an excuse and learning by doing! Good luck, success and enjoy doing business internationally! There might be two sides that can learn from each other.

And, by the way: I visited the internship place after ten years again and the employees still remembered me!

Published at 28.05.2018