Different Strokes - 2004-10-01

At the International Geographic Union Congress in Glasgow in August, the world's largest software maker explained just how much cross-cultural ignorance can cost. Tom Edwards, an executive in Microsoft's geopolitical strategy team, revealed several mistakes the company had made in foreign markets. In one gaffe, developers of Windows 95 used a different color on a map of India to signify the disputed territory of Kashmir. Because the map indicated Kashmir as separate from India, the Indian government banned the software from the country. In another blunder, Microsoft alienated an entire nation of women when a Spanish version of Windows XP mistranslated the word for "female," offering users three choices: unspecified, male, or, rather unfortunately, "bitch."

In each case, Microsoft was forced to absorb the expense of recalling the software or resolving the errors -- a cost that ran into the millions of dollars. So, in an effort to learn from past mistakes and avoid new ones, Microsoft developed a meetings-based strategy. It sends its staffers to training courses to educate them about the rest of the world and its cultures and traditions. The company has learned that in an economy in which both employees and customers of a single corporation can hail from several countries and cultural backgrounds, not all cultural missteps are as easy to identify as misdrawn maps and ill-translated software. Overlooked cultural differences not only discourage product sales but can also stymie productivity within corporations that employ workers in and from different countries. And Microsoft is by no means the only corporation to actively acknowledge the value of multiculturalism in business. Rather, companies spanning all industries are introducing training programs to instruct their employees in, quite literally, the ways of the world.

Corporate entities and executives have not always been so accommodating toward different ways of conducting business. "In the early 90s, the feeling was either, 'Doesn't everybody know this?' or, 'People should just adjust to us,' " says Gloria Peterson, president of Chicago-based Global Protocol, an international etiquette and protocol training firm. "But technology changed the whole business model. The workplace became very multicultural." Suddenly, workers needed to be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences in the approach to work. And this need has only intensified in recent years. "Demand for cross-cultural training is increasing," says Christian Forthomme, president of Aptos, CA-based RealChange Network, a consultancy that develops teambuilding programs for corporations with international employees. "Recent events, including the war in Iraq, have highlighted the need to find an appropriate and sensitive cultural approach to another country. We have seen more requests from American organizations saying, 'We want to bring other cultures effectively into the thinking of our company.' "

Peterson agrees, adding that recent corporate and economic trends have further necessitated this type of training. "The late 1990s heralded a significant decrease of formality in the work environment. But now, as unemployment rises, companies need to look better to get the competitive edge. It's not so much about knowledge—you can find academics—but social skills are a whole different ballgame. You have to be careful how to address people, respect their differences," she says. The need for such sensitivity training is acute, both within companies and between them.

Corporations with branches throughout the world apply international protocol training to enable their employees to work together better. "Employees are dealing cross-culturally when a corporation has internal issues that arise through mergers and acquisitions and expanding worldwide resources," says Diane Silberstein, president of Atlanta, GA-based Global Connections, a cross-cultural training company. "And that can be very intense, because people have very deep-rooted values and work ethics and ways they approach their jobs. So that type of training really takes a commitment from management and a great deal of work."

Some multinational corporations approach the problem in much the same way as they might other employee issues: through teambuilding. "A lot of European companies have sent their employees to, say, Silicon Valley for as long as a week to undergo a sort of cultural immersion process. They want to make sure that the product development teams would work effectively together across cultures," says RealChange Network's Forthomme, who has facilitated such programs. "The goal is to create a vision of how to work with each country, by really getting people to connect as human beings first." Forthomme employs traditional teambuilding techniques such as group adventures and physical challenges such as ropes courses to show people from different cultures how to work together. "The first things they notice is how everyone approaches the challenges differently, but then later they can explore the similarities, and in the end this joint discovery helps them work together."

Ultimately, it all boils down to communicating effectively in order to transcend cultural differences. "Corporations are responding to a typical problem—people are not interacting with one another in the way that needs to happen," says Global Protocol's Peterson. One of the biggest barriers, she says, is language. "We use a lot of clichés in this country, and foreigners often learn the Queen's English, not American English. So in the boardroom, in staff meetings, in customer calls, people from foreign backgrounds tend to get lost. The training helps Americans understand as well as reminds them to try to avoid colloquialisms in business conversations." And because not all communication is verbal, Peterson coaches employees to be aware of their body language, as well. "Americans traditionally keep a certain distance from one another, what we call personal space. Other cultures don't. So how do you communicate when you're that close? Well, there's a way of standing that maintains personal space yet doesn't offend them by sending the message that you're backing away." It's a way, Peterson says, to achieve a mutual comfort level which, in the end, this training is all about. "Something as simple as posture can be very offensive. As Americans, we're very casual. Men slouch in chairs, sometimes even throw their leg up over the arm. Just because [foreigners] are over here doesn't mean they're necessarily comfortable with our gestures and the way we do things. And when you make people uncomfortable, communication gets blocked, and things don't get done."

Selling to customers of different cultural backgrounds is just as important to a company's success as is working well together internally. To some extent, it is the inevitable course of a growing business. "Moving internationally is definitely a way to increase market share, especially if the domestic market is saturated," observes Global Connections' Silberstein. And, as Microsoft's examples illustrate, adapting to a new consumer environment is not always easy.

Andrew Dudek, trade show manager for Piscataway, NJ-based Telcordia Technologies, says that "in the past few years, our international presence has gone from one to ten shows annually." At one show in Asia, he had his collateral translated into the appropriate language by an American company, and "they chose a typeface that looked like an old western 'Wanted' poster would look to us. And we're a modern, technology company. So we learned the hard way." Now, Dudek incorporates into his planning schedule time for training in the protocol of the host country. "We need to bring along American engineers to explain the product technically, so we're constantly briefing these guys on what to expect at trade shows in different environments," he says. "And these guys are not just Americans, but highly technical guys who might not be all that comfortable in social situations to begin with. Add foreign language and culture, and you really need to do a lot of handholding to get them relaxed enough in that environment to be effective." Dudek estimates that he dedicates a full 25 percent of his pre-show meetings to this issue. And because each trade show is in a different country, this training must be completed prior to every show.

Similarly, meeting professionals planning international meetings need to familiarize themselves with the protocol of their host country—or that of their foreign guests—before making any arrangements. "Someone who plans meetings for large pharmaceutical companies, for example, and is bringing in scientists and researchers from around the world needs to understand that everyone has different approaches to hospitality," says Laraine Kaminsky, executive vice president of Ontario, Canada-based cross-cultural training firm Graybridge Malkam and a Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Platinum Speaker. "If a planner arranges a cocktail reception from six to nine at night, the people from countries where punctuality is highly valued will all arrive at six and leave at eight. Meanwhile, people from other countries won't arrive until eight-thirty, and will be upset that all the food is gone."

When planning an inclusive, international event, planners need to consider the cultural implications every step of the way. When booking speakers, for example, planners should avoid comedic presenters; humor is often culturally based, topical, sometimes political, and loaded with "code" that those from other cultures cannot decipher.

Because there's so much to remember, Dallas-based MPI offers a series of educational seminars and courses on international meeting planning. "As we become more globalized and there's more interaction across the world, we as planners have to be much more sensitive not only to dietary issues but educational training differences, international cultural differences, and regional cultural differences," says Karen Garcia-Gonzales, MPI's managing director of multicultural initiatives. To this end, MPI offers several courses that address this issue, such as "Global Cultures: Differences and Similarities" and "The Culturally Competent Meeting Professional: Secrets for Success in Cross-Cultural Sales and Customer Service."

As the world gets smaller and businesses must span both continents and cultures, international protocol has become increasingly critical both for corporations and meeting planners. "Perception is reality, and that varies by cultural background," Silberstein says. "It's important that we get beyond that and bridge those differences."