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Business Across Cultures: Yes or No

An Introduction to Cross Cultural Training

It takes more for a company to be successful overseas than a quality product and high manufacturing standards. There is a human factor that must be considered. Everyone is a product of his or her cultural environment and such “cultural baggage“” is one thing that cannot be lost on an intercontinental flight. Culture influences our actions and effects the way that we look at things.

It is said that the view across cultures is clouded, marked by indistinct borders, general misconception and mutual frustration. I certainly agree with that while watching newly arrived western executives adjusting to life in Indonesia. I see them attempt to do their jobs as usual, and develop working relationships in their new positions. As we are all a product of our own culture, many executives simply use the same management and negotiation techniques here that they would use back home often with unfortunate results.

Living in a foreign culture can be exciting, albeit frustrating and confusing. Whether buying a train ticket at Gambir or using a pay phone in Union Station, unless you understand how the system is supposed to work, it may not work for you. After a time in a foreign culture, a person begins to understand the unspoken assumptions and expectations. Eventually, he or she becomes more comfortable with various situations. Learning business customs, expectations in an office setting and what things cannot be changed but merely understood is a good sign that an executive has made the adjustment to the new culture. The problem is time. The “old China hand” has been replaced by a new generation of executives looking for business opportunities outside their home countries. The lengthy learning and cultural adaptation process that may have been acceptable 30 or 20 years ago is not acceptable in today's world. Modern business is moving fast and cannot accept lengthy acclimatization periods or failed overseas postings by executives.

Our own culture has a very strong influence on the way we are. We are immersed in it and it controls our actions and behavior. The modern executive who leads his company into a new market in a country where he does not understand the cultural ground rules is in for a lot of trouble and for problems that could have possibly been avoided.

We live in an information age. An age where the flow of information can make or break a company. In a recent market survey of foreign professionals working in Indonesia, a majority of the respondents indicated that they required more information on general business and cultural conditions here and were actively looking for that information. They felt that such crosscultural knowledge would increase their efficiency and effectiveness during their posting. One of the conclusions drawn from this survey was that an understanding of the expectations and standards of foreign colleagues is necessary to effect smooth cross-cultural working relationships, and a successful assignment.

The process of cultural assimilation and the development of effective crosscultural working relationships requires effort and knowledge on the behalf of all parties. However, for the successful executive in an ever-growing global market, this is no longer a luxury, but becomes a necessity.

Yes or No

“If you want a straight answer, don't ask an Indonesian”, said John Thomas, a big Australian business baron as he boarded his flight back home. His business trip was a failure and his planned expansion into Asia was set-back if not canceled. “Sombong, kurang sabar dan kurang jelas!”, said Pak Budi, the Indonesian businessman with whom the Australian was dealing. Both of these men were experienced and successful businessmen in their home countries, but they became caught in a cultural misunderstanding that left both parties without a deal. There are well documented differences between Indonesian and Western business practices. One of the problems these parties faced was the question of direct vs. indirect communication. This is, of course, one of the major issues that foreign professionals have to address when meeting with a Bapak. What exactly does Pak Budi mean? How does he perceive John Thomas? Pak Budi is relying heavily on indirect and complex methods of communication. These include circumlocutions, figurative forms of speech, facial expressions, gestures and other kinds of body language.

As Mochtar Buchari points out “It has been an established practice in Bahasa Indonesia to use euphemisms for the purpose of softening or polishing expressions. Euphemisms are not meant to fool ourselves or anyone else. A society which decides to adopt euphemisms does so, usually, for the purpose of promoting politeness in verbal communication, to avoid expressions that can be offensive.”

How Pak Budi is reacting to John Thomas' proposal can only be determined by interpreting a series of signs, gestures and seemingly indefinite comments. He can convey a negative answer without using the word “No” and can just as easily answer “Yes” without actually making a commitment.

Is such indirection necessary or useful? One argument strongly in its favor is that it allows an understanding to emerge, an answer to formulate, without someone actually admitting something, thus saving “face”. To some, the choice seems to boil down to indirection vs. confrontation.

A confrontational style taken by a Western businessman is almost sure to fail to produce the desired results. Yelling, screaming, threatening and other displays of negative emotion will end your relationship with a Bapak and probably with all of his close associates as well. Indonesia is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society with great variations in background and socioeconomic status. Such refrained expression is justified in order to avoid offending sensibilities. In the West, business and society seem to be characterized by the tendencies to state one's point of view, generate a reaction in others, and most of all to be assertive in interpersonal dealings. These tendencies need to be controlled when doing business in Indonesia. An august personage here may quote the Javanese expression “Ngonoyo ngono nanging ojo ngono” or “The issue is understood by all concerned, and decided without anyone having to announce it.”

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.