How To Foster A Sound Global Mindset
Speaking English Does Not Mean Going Global
When a Japanese nods yes, it does not always mean yes. It seems that English is not enough for communicating with others from different cultural backgrounds. How can we deal with that?
Speaking English Does Not Mean Going GlobalBy Wenzel Herder
At the conference table, on one side sat an American sales team; the other sat their Japanese prospective clients. This was the first time for Steven, the leader of the sales team, to deal with Asian companies. Nevertheless, he introduced their products and service with confidence and pride, emphasized their competencies, and went straight into possible collaborative scenarios.
The Japanese on the other side kept nodding yes. In the end, they replied to Steven that they will think about it and get back to him. Steven thought a positive response was already at hand.
As soon as the meeting finished, Steven gladly called his supervisor, claiming that the deal was just a matter of time, for the prospective clients seemed to be impressed. He looked forward to the clients’ reply, which he expected to be about contact signing protocols.
However, it turned out to be a false assumption. The Japanese did reply, but rather vaguely: “Due to some concerns, this case might not be suitable for the moment. We look forward to future cooperation.”
Their ‘Yes’ Does Not Mean ‘Yes’
Steven was shocked. He thought he did great at the meeting, and the Japanese seemed to be showing signs of agreement by nodding all the way, saying “Yes.” He had no idea what was going wrong.
As Taiwanese, we might be able to understand what the problem was. A nodding yes from a Japanese does not always mean agreement. Sometimes it translates to “I got it.” As Asians prefer euphemism, they tend to refuse others in an allusive and indirect way, which is in contrast to the American style of forthright speaking. Steven’s lack of understanding cultural differences was the reason why he ended up shocked, confused and bewildered.
Steven’s case is often cited in a newly launched corporate training course called “Cultural Awareness.”
In this globalization era, it is no longer rare to work with partners from different cultural backgrounds. From cross-company deals, to cooperation within multinational enterprises, cultural awareness has become a key core competence in today’s world.
What Is Cultural Awareness? Why Is It That Important?
As mentioned, Steven’s lack of understanding cultural differences is what led him to misinterpretations. But losing a sales deal is a minor issue compared to the serious consequences that can be foreseen if one fails to understand the importance of cultural awareness and continues to “live in his own bubble.” In this globalizing flow of talents, ideas, and information, he could be easily kicked out of the game.
On the other hand, cultural awareness serves as the foundation for cross-cultural communications. Based on this understanding, cultural awareness enables one to be sensitive to different working styles from other countries, knowing how they are different, why they are different, and how to deal with those differences.
One friendly act in one culture might be insulting to another. If both sides lack cultural awareness, a conflict of misunderstanding might be triggered. For example, if one passionate Latin American businessman kisses the cheeks of an Arabian lady as a greeting, he might get punched in the next second by her Arabian husband.
Though this example sounds a little exaggerated, it explains the importance of cultural awareness. Without this bridge of understanding, general biased stereotyped thinking could be formed and give rise to conflicts everywhere. For example, Germans are often thought to be cold and emotionless as robots, while Southern-Europeans such as Spanish and Italians might be considered lazy and apathetic. These stereotypes are very likely to become discrimination that leads to conflicts.
Image: IR Stone＠Shutterstock
Forgiveness comes after understanding. If we know the original intentions behind one’s action or words, we are more likely to understand and tolerate the action or words that might seem offensive to us at first place. This "knowing" can be learnt, for example, through vast reading about diverse cultures.
Apart from reading, to better understand different cultures, we also need to be equipped with some basic knowledge of humanities. The most commonly mentioned term in the cultural awareness course is “High-context Culture” and “Low-context Culture,” terms coined by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall to describe broad-brush talking style differences between cultures.
For example, in East Asian countries, especially in Japan, the ability to tell the implications behind the facial expressions is crucial. In general, one does not show what they think explicitly through their words, but implicitly through their attitude and expressions. This kind of communication that relies on internalized, situational and relational understanding is a typical style of a High-context culture. On the contrary, never-beat-around-the-bush straightforward speaking, represented by Australians and Americans, are regarded as the communication style of Low-context cultures.
Nevertheless, we should not simply label countries or cultures in general terms, for there are other spectrums such as ethnics and generation population to take into consideration.
For instance, though the UK and the US share the same language, the British culture is a higher context culture, where communication relies on more than just words. On the other hand, if you ask a young Taiwanese who you barely knew, in the face, things about relationships or income, it would be very offensive; but the older people you ask, the more likely your question will be accepted. Furthermore, though Osaka and Kyoto are located near each other, personality characteristics of the people from these two cities are extremely different.
The examples above prove that even in the same country, culture may vary among different ethnic groups or generation. Therefore, it would be necessary to learn how to reset your understanding each time you get acquainted with someone new.
Want to Go Global? Put Yourself In Others’ Shoes
Though the term may sound complicated, cultural awareness is simply about respect and tolerance. It is about holding on for a second before you get offended by another from a different culture, and thinking about the reasons why, and the real intentions. It is about learning to put yourself in others’ shoes, to understand, and to accept the differences with an open mind.
Today, we are surrounded by topics about going global. However, while people talk about improving English, meeting foreign people, or traveling around the world, it is in fact cultural awareness that sets the foundation for a sound global vision. An American might speak very fluent English, but cannot point out the location of North Korea; A third culture kid might have a lot of friends from around the world, but still can’t tolerate the differences of other cultures; A Chinese matron may have traveled to dozens of countries, but still has no idea what the world is going on.
To go global, start from putting yourself in others’ shoes. To be willing to understand others and think from their perspective is always the first step to cultural awareness. Even though you never traveled abroad, as long as you’re willing to know and accept the people from different backgrounds around you, you are going global.
Cultural awareness is no doubt a crucial skill in today's globalizing world. It enables you to work with partners from other backgrounds, to deal with misunderstandings and conflicts, and to pave your way to a better life, a better society, and a better world. Open your mind and learn how to perceive the beauty of other cultures. The moment you learn how to put yourself in others' shoes, you will see a different world.
Translated by Sharon Tseng.
Wenzel Herder is a columnist at Crossing.
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.