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The importance of culture in global business
Tue, 08/31/2010 - 14:11

Oswaldo Morales

Cultura organizacional y liderazgo en empresas familiares latinoamericanas
Oswaldo Morales

Profesor del área de Administración, Universidad ESAN. PhD en Estudios Internacionales, Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Universidad de Waseda (Japón). MBA ESAN (Perú), Maestría en Economía y Regulación de los Servicios Públicos, Universidad de Barcelona (España) y estudios de Maestría en Derecho Empresarial, Universidad de Lima (Perú). Es abogado además de esta última casa de estudios. Sus artículos han aparecido en revistas como Business, Anda News, Links Japan Perú, Diario El Comercio, Diario Gestión, entre otros.

“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are,” Talmud Bavli, ancient Babylonian wisdom text

This book written more than 2,000 years ago collects a truth that has always existed, we see, perceive and even act according to the beliefs and values we have. We call those values and beliefs that determine our thoughts and behaviors culture.

Culture is acquired in different ways, through our personal experiences, the education received in the family, school, university, social clubs, work and in general through social interaction. It is important to highlight that, as Schein states, there is a part of culture that is made up of deep conscious and unconscious beliefs that are lodged in the mind and many times it is not possible to observe them directly, but rather through their manifestations or artifacts.

These deep beliefs have been formed mainly during childhood, with information and stimuli that will determine what is good or bad, acceptable or not for that person. During adult life, people continue to receive social stimuli that contribute to the formation of these beliefs and values.

But why is culture important for international business? To answer this question I want to mention a very illustrative example used by Steers, Sanchez-Runde and Nardon in their book. They use a “grasshopper” and mention that these grasshoppers are considered a pest in North America, pets in China and delicious snacks in Thailand, ending with a very interesting reflection: if culture can generate so many different points of view about a grasshopper, imagine What could I do with people?

These authors are quite right in suggesting that culture is so powerful that it influences the way people perceive, visualize and act in the world and therefore how they do business. Now that many Latin American countries are negotiating free trade agreements with Asian countries like Japan, which is a world power, we should know some things about the Japanese; For example, before discussing a business it is important to generate a relationship between the parties , which indicates a long-term possibility, and that the experience of the negotiators reflected in the age and number of years that that person has been part of The company reflects confidence.

For the American professor Robert J. House, there is a tendency among cultures in the world to be more interconnected and for that reason businesses are becoming global, however when these different cultures come into contact, they converge in some aspects but in others the different idiosyncrasies tend to be amplified. This means that the cultural issue is taking on great importance for the conduct of successful international businesses and many business schools are even including intercultural management courses in their programs.

Like a “fish in water” is used to make an analogy with culture and people. This example is very illustrative in the sense that a fish only realizes that it is in the water when it is taken from its vital element; when it is in it, it does not perceive its existence. In the same way, a person who interacts in his daily context does not perceive “his culture” or the elements that make it different from other cultures, but when one is forced to leave his “environment” he can perceive the characteristics of his own culture and Compare them with the new culture of the place where you are now.

I'm going to give you my own example of when I arrived at a university in Japan to continue my studies and I was introduced to a Japanese fellow student. I approached her and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, since that would be a very natural reaction among people from some Latin American countries. I noticed that she felt uncomfortable and I told you that I never saw that girl again during the course in Japan.

But what had happened in that case? It was simply that the Japanese way of greeting each other is not with a kiss but with a bow that includes a slight inclination of the body forward but without physical contact. By not knowing those cultural patterns of greeting, I had invaded the private space of my Japanese colleague and had given her a bad time and even embarrassed her. The same thing happens in the businesses we do with people from different countries or cultures, we forget the small details. These small details sometimes end up being decisive, for example being careful in the language, way of dressing, the food to be invited and even the gifts to be given, can determine the success of the negotiation.

The relevance of culture in international negotiations transcends visible aspects such as food, clothing and greetings and also includes the way of thinking and different opinions sometimes faced with the same reality. Just as for some people the grasshopper was a pet, for other people it could be considered a pest and for others a culinary delight, in the same way the topics to be discussed in an international negotiation can often be named in the same way but the people be thinking of different meanings. We Latin Americans must be prepared in managing cultural aspects to be successful in international negotiations.