By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
I recently returned from a tour of 6 European countries during which I had time to think about the cultural nuances of each. While English was widely spoken and all the countries I visited boasted a patina of international sophistication and used a common currency (the euro), each also had its own language not to mention its own local architectural style and regional mealtime favorites. Even their local music was unique to itself.
These nuances got me thinking about my 40 years with Marriott International in which I had made similar observations in the 150 countries I visited. It reinforced once again for me that cultures evolve over time because of the local geography, historical context, religious beliefs and shared experiences of the local residents.
You might wonder what’s the big deal about Culture and the answer is simple. Culture shapes the way people view and understand the world, what they find humorous, what they value, to whom they are loyal and what they fear. It’s the social bond that ties them together. It impacts lifestyle and monitors standards of behavior. It influences the personal distance we maintain during a conversation, our overall body language and the degree of physical contact made during communication.
Failure to acknowledge the power of Culture in virtually all human interaction and to understand the cultural background of the person you hope to forge a relationship with can block your efforts altogether. It can kill any hope of negotiating an agreement or of maintaining mutual respect for each other.
At the Orange County Visitors Association here in Southern California, we take Culture very seriously. One of our prime sales and marketing objectives is to substantially grow our international visitor base. To this end, we’re all committed to ensuring that travelers from abroad have an exceptionally positive experience while visiting our shops, restaurants, hotels, beaches and attractions so that when they return home, they, in turn, will tell their friends and colleagues about all that’s terrific in The OC.
So that Orange County’s business owners, local residents, city officials and hospitality professionals can confidently extend the warm welcome for which they’re renowned, we are now producing a series of free, 30-minute cultural training videos about the culture of our target markets. These videos cover everything from the traveler’s cultural foundation to how to extend proper greetings, business etiquette and pitfalls to avoid.
Our most recent video, entitled “Welcoming Our Middle Eastern Guests to Orange County,” highlights the cultural traditions of guests from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other areas of the Middle East. It explains religious practices, social norms and teaches etiquette for communicating and interacting with these visitors. It can be found on www.visittheoc.com/middle-east and YouTube: youtu.be/UmBZtS10rB4. Earlier, we produced a similar video on welcoming visitors from China. This one can be easily accessed by visiting the VisitTheOC website: www.visittheoc.com/china-hospitality; and can also be viewed on the VisitCalifornia YouTube channel: youtu.be/jmLIB6U3104.
In a business world that’s ever more ethnically and racially mixed, respecting cultural traditions is important. If half of your call-center staff was born in India or you outsource your manufacturing to Taiwan or you have a major market in Russia, you need to learn about traditions in all those cultures—from their holidays to their various ways of meeting and greeting. And the more you learn, the better you will get on. I learned that the hard way.
I’ve always liked to do things for myself. When I arrive at a hotel, for example, I want to carry my own bag. Early in my career, when a bellman in an Asian hotel welcomed me and reached for my luggage, I would thank him but hold on to it. A general manager finally set me straight. “Don’t do that,” he told me. “Let him carry your bag. You’re the president and letting him help you confers respect on him.” Ever since, I have let people help me, particularly in Asia. It’s my way of showing respect. It means the bellman or waiter gets to go home that night and tell his family, “I got to take care of the president today.” It gives the bellman what Asians call “face.”
I have learned the key to developing strong business relationships starts with an understanding of the history and culture of the country (or company) you are working in. Begin building relationships by asking questions about the local history over non-business discussions. Ask about family history, country history or personal interests and the like. We all enjoy talking about ourselves and our experiences—though topics like politics and religion should wait until you have a firm understanding of their passions and priorities. Simultaneously, be sure to strengthen your listening skills and your ability to communicate your respect and sincerity.
The importance of cultural understanding can’t be stressed enough. It’s an integral part of all of us. It defines the way we treat others and ultimately ourselves.