Conducting business across cultural boundaries can sometimes lead to accidental faux pas. Intercultural trainer Paul Stiff explains how encouraging your team to be sensitive to cultural differences could result in improved business relationships.
As a result of the globalisation of labour and the demands of the NHS in the past few decades, we have seen an influx of nurses, medical staff, doctors and surgeons from a vast array of internationally distinct cultural backgrounds into the UK.
There are many outstanding examples including Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, the world-renowned cardiac surgeon and a pioneer in the field of heart and lung transplantation. A Coptic Christian Egyptian by birth, he has performed more transplants than any other surgeon in the world. Indian National, Professor Ara Darzi, who pioneered innovative work in the development of minimally invasive surgery, is also another notable example, as is Ms. Sunita Shrotria, also originally from India, who pioneered scarless surgery for the treatment of breast cancer.
Thanks to this trend, many important advances in modern medical practices have been made, which, in turn, have offered hope to many British people through those that have chosen to live and work in the UK. In fact, the international excellence that British medicine enjoys today is believed by many to be due to the historical moves made by Jewish members of the medical profession from mainland Europe and Russia, leaving religious persecution in their own countries and settling, studying and researching here. In turn, their families trained and contributed much to this country to become the doctors we know and respect today.
However, these trends taken together have also resulted in the nature of a medical representative’s customer base changing gradually over the years. Whether it is appreciated or not, there is now a complex interaction between buyers and sellers of medical products which often has less to do with features and benefits and more to do with the level of cultural understanding between the people undertaking the transaction.
Relationship before business
It is easy to dismiss cultural differences when customers originating from countries as far afield as Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa or Pakistan are all fluent in the English language. However, don’t be misled. Although understanding between cultures is all about communication, it has, in fact, very little to do with language. Culture is a form of mental mindset, a form of pre-programming, which needs to be understood as distinct from linguistic communication.
One of the key cultural differences to become aware of is the fact that in countries outside Northern Europe people tend to be ‘people people’, rather than ‘process people’. They are relationship driven and value the nature, quality and depth of the relationship as much as, if not more than, the intellectual content delivered by that relationship. Outside Northern Europe, it is essential to build trust and understanding over time before consideration is given to business transactions. This ingrained cultural aspect does not change because of a different location or because your counterpart speaks perfect English – it travels with the person.
The need for relationships before business is initiated contrasts with the British culture, which is more knowledge driven. Generally, this is where issues arise because such cultural aspects are so often deeply ingrained we don’t even realise they are there. It is frequently observed within the context of the world outside Northern Europe that it is impossible to do business with people you don’t know and therefore cannot trust.
Our society works because we assume the majority of our tribe have the same beliefs and values as us. When we come across another culture, basic differences become all too apparent – often too late and when the relationship has faltered. Therefore, to be successful in an increasingly multicultural world, it is important to develop an attitude of cultural empathy and understanding that extends to the many different cultural ‘shapes’ we come across in our every day work. Achieving this and then adapting our own personal style to ‘fit in’ and demonstrate such understanding with another culture – by even just a small degree – will often make a significant difference in the eyes of a colleague or customer and help build that all important relationship.
Religion is very often key, and its importance to many in this country is made even starker as a contrast when set against the secular and humanistic values in Northern Europe.
Understandable examples might include a Muslim doctor who is fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan falls in mid-August and it would be inappropriate to offer to meet over a sandwich or a drink when fasting will be observed during the long daylight hours of the UK summer. Similarly, many Greeks, Russians and Egyptians are Orthodox Christians and celebrate Christmas and Easter on different dates to that of the majority of UK residents. Wishing an Orthodox Christian ‘Happy Easter’ at the right time shows you understand that person’s different emotional drivers.
Attitudes and understanding
Religion is just one aspect of culture which needs to be considered and often it is mis-understanding or ignorance of more subtle drivers that can contribute towards the non-success of a relationship.
For example, attitudes towards age – particularly related to level of responsibility – can differ markedly between cultures. In the UK, for example, the age of the person in charge is generally irrelevant and position is normally associated with merit. However, in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, responsibility and respect is directly connected to age and irreverence to this cultural point may accidentally offend.
Hierarchy is also a deeply ingrained aspect of many cultures. Asking a senior person from Malaysia – one of the most hierarchical countries in the world – what they think during a meeting could cause acute embarrassment if they were unsure of the answer.
The social background of the person in their home country is also a consideration which should be kept in mind, as it is often very different from their position UK society. Some years ago, I knew of a colleague who had worked with a young Arab paediatrician who was part of the ruling family of a very notable, prominent Gulf State. Though anglicised through her Western upbringing and specialisation at some of London’s leading teaching hospitals, she was indeed ‘her Highness’ in her own country and being aware of that here in the UK was appropriate.
It is also necessary to be aware and tread carefully around political bias. In the ‘global’ world, it is often easy to come across as ill-informed or naive with our tendency to pigeon-hole or over-simplify attitudes towards certain situations. However, be sure not to ‘ignore the elephant in the room’. If you are working with an Indian doctor make sure you are up to date about the recent problems in Mumbai, for example, as thoughts of home will often be on his or her mind.
Punctuality is also an interesting point. In the UK, good time-keeping is highly valued, though in many cultures, such as those in Southern Europe, punctuality is not a given. The good news is that the importance of punctuality will increase in proportion with the strength of a relationship built over time.
Meeting the culture challenge
The sales and marketing of pharmaceutical products in the UK increasingly involves the need to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds. This brings with it a set of cultural and communication challenges that need to be addressed if the business outcome is to be successful. One of the key reasons for this is failing to take into account the invisibility of our own culture.
Quite simply, not only is the world outside our own quite extraordinary, it is, at times, too extraordinary for us to even imagine. Conducting business across cultural boundaries can create difficulties, however, it is these hurdles that make working with people from different cultures so challenging and interesting at the same time. The key to success is to learn about the culture of person you are doing business with.
Paul Stiff is Intercultural trainer at Farnham Castle International Briefing & Conference Centre. Farnham Castle specialises in cross cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings for every country in the world in addition to those coming to live and work in Britain. Tel: 01252 720406, web: www.farnhamcastle.com.