North Central Business Journal News
(May 2000 issue)
by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.
Culture is the subtle, difficult-to-describe underpinning of how we
behave and think. An analogy for culture is the musical key.
The musical key provides expectations of what notes fit together as well
as the progression of notes within a piece of music. The same is
true of culture. Culture provides those who live within it an expectation
of what behaviors and thoughts are “normal”.
Culture is acquired through observational learning tactics.
We are surrounded by this culture from the time of our birth. We
learn the expectations and thought patterns by watching others. Most
of culture involves nonverbal behaviors. This is what makes describing
a culture so difficult. The basic rules by which we live are beyond
articulation. Because we learn culture before we begin talking, most
of us are unable to explain what we are doing.
Culture provides the filter through which we perceive everything
that happens around us. It is impossible to be culture neutral.
The best we can be is culture-sensitive. This is where cross-cultural
training comes in.
As companies continue to do business outside their own cultural
niche, they are thrust into situations which are at best confusing and
may often be disastrous financially. Cross-cultural training sensitizes
people to the subtle differences found in other cultures. Cross-cultural
training enables companies to behave appropriately when interacting with
others to reduce offense and confusion. It requires more than learning
how to translate English into another language.
Most companies engaged in transnational business need to train
all employees who come in contact with people from another culture, including
the executives, the sales representatives, the purchasing agents, and the
telephone receptionists. Not only do these people need
to learn the language of these clients or suppliers, they also need to
discover how these people behave and think. Otherwise, miscommunication
Cross-cultural training is also needed whenever companies employ
people from different cultures. Intracompany conflict often
occurs when co-workers come from different cultural traditions. Because
culture involves the tacit rules about thinking patterns and “natural”
behaviors, there are likely to be subtle distinctions among co-workers
about appropriate reactions to situations. When these are not addressed
explicitly, the resultant confusion and irritation can fester into tension.
Supervisors of multi-cultural work forces also need cross-cultural training
to help them distinguish between inadequate performance and cultural differences,
as well as discover useful ways of motivating and correcting their employees.
Choosing a cross-cultural trainer is an important step for a company.
The cost of good training will be offset by increased business.
Inexpensive, generic training programs are virtually worthless. The
training program needs to be customized for both the company and the particular
culture with which it is interacting.
There are a variety of training companies who specialize in cross-cultural
training. The trick is to find one that can utilize the appropriate
training tactics for your company. Advanced planning will reduce
the cost of mistakes, enhancing the company’s ability to do business effectively
across cultures. Cross-cultural training is best handled by someone
both experienced in the ways in which adults learn as well as knowledgeable
about the nuances of a particular culture. Company executives
can increase the likelihood of finding the right training organization
by first determining what training is actually needed, which employees
need to receive it, and how those employees will best learn.
Executives are then able to compare training organizations on those factors
rather than being swept away by gimmicks or blinded by financial considerations.
Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational
Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human
resource issues.. Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes
in aiding small businesses. Dr. Neal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.