Cultural Awareness Is Needed in the U.S. as Well as Overseas

Be aware of different cultures and how they interact in your own country

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 8, 2017
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U.S. companies often take steps to become aware of cultural differences in the countries into which they are expanding. But cross-cultural awareness is valuable even in the U.S. when dealing with business leaders who have immigrated here.

Case in point: A U.S. pharmaceutical company was finding it difficult to distribute vaccines to healthcare providers, such as clinics, in certain areas of California that were predominantly operated by first-generation or newly immigrated Asian-Americans, said Sean Dubberke, director of learning at RW3 CultureWizard. His company provides digital learning and cross-cultural training and has offices in New York, Los Angeles and London. It was clear after some analysis, Dubberke said, that there was some kind of cultural disconnect.

Part of the problem, he said, was that it wasn't apparent to the pharmaceutical company's sales and marketing team who in the prospective client's office was the decision-maker. What the sales staff didn't realize, he said, is sometimes it is the wife of the doctor, acting as the office manager, who makes the decisions. Sales and marketing representatives had to learn to be "less transactional and more focused on building relationships."

"In slowing things down and not being so aggressive [in their sales approach], they were able to see that return on their investment," Dubberke said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Intercultural Competence as a Key Enabler of Organizational Growth and Success]

Learning About Cultures Within the U.S.  

As the country's demographics shift, U.S.-based organizations would be wise to become more culturally aware when dealing with business owners who are new to America. The Asian population in the U.S. grew from 10.2 million in 2000 to 14.7 million in 2010, a 43 percent increase and faster than that of any other major race group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And more than half of the growth in the total U.S. population during that period was because of the increased Hispanic population, which grew from 35.3 million people to 50.5 million people. By 2010—the latest date for which the information is available—Hispanics made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million people, the Census Bureau noted.

Dubberke advised people to be conscious of their communication style and to modify it accordingly when dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, for example, a person may answer a question in the affirmative to save face even when that person doesn't know the answer. It is advisable, he suggested, to avoid asking yes-or-no questions when possible to avoid this potential issue.

Also, a direct approach that has been successful with some clients will not necessarily work on a global scale, he noted.

"We take for granted [that] our workforce knows what it takes to effectively read the cultural differences that often obstruct our effectiveness domestically and internationally," Dubberke said.

"Take each interaction seriously, and be flexible enough to throw out your plan [of action] and revise it in the moment to reach your goals," he advised. The person you are dealing with "may be skewing away from the norm you've learned about."

Blythe McGarvie, senior lecturer at Boston-based Harvard Business School, observed in a Harvard Business Review video that "smart business decisions depend on everyone understanding and bridging their cultural differences."

Look for clues to cultural differences in order to adapt. A "tough" culture, she said, values winning over social relations, adheres to a "time is money" mindset and makes symbols of achievement—such as office size—visible. In a "tender" culture, there are "hidden influencers instead of obvious stars," she said.

"It's difficult to work across cultures, but if you know the key areas of difference, diagnose where you and your colleagues are on those continuums, and adapt to their culture," she said. "You can build bridges and set the stage for business success."
 

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