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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 will result.

 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 sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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