I’ve moved through the world as a sojourner, someone who lives in a “foreign” country for one or more years with the intention of returning to his or her country of origin. As a college student, I lived in Spain and traveled throughout Europe. Then in my early career, I worked in the Southern Africa region in Zimbabwe and in South Africa—and I’ve learned many lessons for making a successful transition between cultures.
I learned what large companies have always known: to succeed in an international transition, do not resist local culture, but embrace it. For instance, in South Korea, McDonald’s sells a Bulgogi Burger and Shanghai Spice Chicken Burger; Starbucks blends spices to reflect local usage and customizes its breakfast sandwiches to reflect local tastes; Dunkin Donuts sells special treats and gift boxes to celebrate “Pepero Day” each November 11th, a holiday when young lovers celebrate one another and students appreciate teachers with chocolates. The key to achieving global cultural competency is cultivating an understanding of your particular locality—or localizing your life.
Develop a City, or Locality, Orientation
Developing global cultural competence requires some research of the local culture. Understanding the locality can make or break a successful business deal. For instance, I’m an Oakland A’s fan. Busan, South Korea, is home of the Lotte Giants, which is fashioned after the San Francisco Giants. It is no small faux pas to confuse or not know the leading baseball team in this town. Busan is a high-tech and wired city that has a population of more than 3.5 million people. The city has an official bid to host the 2020 Olympics. It is an urban cosmopolitan location. Knowing this helped me to gauge the appropriate business attire and presentation style. I found that many Busan residents have back-to-back appointments, but expect a timely schedule. I read the local newspapers to get a pulse on the current topics. I became aware of the differences between Busan and Seoul. Knowing these differences is like understanding the nuisances between doing business in Los Angeles as opposed to New York City.
Generalizations about South Korean culture will help you get a foot in the door, but knowing local information will increase the effectiveness of your business.
Learn Local Luncheon Etiquette
Business luncheons abroad have some familiar elements, but there’s always an unexpected twist. After the final session of a four-day workshop I attended in Busan, the participants and the sponsors planned a lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant. I smiled to myself as I took off my shoes and sat on pillows on the floor with my legs crossed under a low table. Although I am not agile, I maneuvered the traditional metal chopsticks to the best of my abilities. This luncheon was a time of celebration, appreciation and closure to the work. It was ceremonial and the final business occurred on another day. Even the seating arrangement had meaning.
In contrast, in Zimbabwe I sat in a big circle with Shona women from the province of Mutare. At the close of the meeting outlining a fundraising plan, I was invited to lunch. In honor of the work, a goat was killed and served. Lunch was held in a large cement room at a large round wooden table. I washed my hands in the bowls provided and was served Sadza, the traditional cornmeal dish. I ate with my fingertips and made small rolls with the cornmeal that I dipped into the goat meat sauce. This was the etiquette of the day. Doing this impressed the African women who smiled and patted me on my back and called me “sister.”
These two business interactions with women-based organizations had different purposes and expectations of behavior. However, sharing a meal and adhering to local customsshowed respect to my hosts and was essential in one case for closing a business deal and, in the other, for establishing trust and building a long-term relationship. One small effort you can make is to know in advance business luncheon protocol.
Find a Cultural Guide
Some organizations assign mentors or cultural guides to their employees moving overseas. Other times, you can find this person though informal networks. In South Korea, I participated in a language-exchange program with a local university. I had the opportunity to practice Korean during once-a-week sessions.
What began as a formalized exchange soon became a friendship. We went on temple visits, museum excursions and tea-house explorations. I could ask questions, such as “Why and when do these white and green flags appear in the neighborhoods?” My guide explained that these flags are a signal that protests or civil actions will occur. Or I could ask, “How do you describe the role of women in this society?” The types of questions deepened as the relationship grew. In South Africa, I was assigned a young man at the agency I worked for to intervene when things went wrong in my apartment, to drive places or to arrange for transportation. He would offer anecdotes about politics, religion and connections between Africans and African Americans. He would also answer questions about processes, such as how to pay bills or mail packages. Once he helped me find fresh milk and real butter. The relationship was formal. The two relationships were different; however, each served to ease the transition between cultures. If an organization doesn’t arrange a formal relationship, I recommend you create the connection. In many locations of the world, there are civic organizations, international chapters of alumni associations or religious communities that will help you maintain the work/life balance and may help you find a cultural guide. Cultural guides help you to check your assumptions about situations, answer questions about local context and understand the logistics of the location.
Stay Open to Learning
Maintaining global cultural competence requires that you are open to lifelong learning. As the time of your international assignment progresses, your learning will deepen. Remember that you are a sojourner, a short-term visitor to another country with a specific purpose. Successfully meeting your company’s goals will require you to understand the communication and decision-making styles in your new location. You can prepare yourself before the visit and find a cultural guide once you are on location, because these are important supports. But along the way, something is bound to happen that causes you frustration.
When this occurs, give yourself a break and follow Steven Covey’s advice to “seek first understanding, then to be understood.” Listening, asking questions and staying open to learning are the final stepping stones in developing global cultural competence. Also, know that there are some things that you’ll just have to accept. For instance, there are two commonly used systems for the Romanization of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Therefore, Pusan (Korean pronunciation) and Busan (English pronunciation), South Korea, are exactly the same place. The names are used interchangeably in government and business as are several other South Korean city names. If you stay open to learning—not only about cultural generalizations, but the specifics of cities, regions or localities—you will improve your level of global cultural competency.
Creating a city/locality orientation, understanding how lunch etiquette differs in different locations, finding knowledgeable cultural guides and staying open to learning have served me well in multiple international relocations. Successful interactions and transactions have been mine because I understand and respect local cultures; I do this worldwide.
Dr. Mignonne Pollard, who holds a doctorate in educational administration, policy, and social planning with a focus on international education from Harvard University, moved to Pusan, South Korea, to support her partner’s career and to work with a local women’s nonprofit. She has been employed in the field of international development and intercultural communication for more than 15 years.