Jennifer Burge
CEO
WorldWise Coaching & Training
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View from the Top

Furthering Intercultural Understanding and Communication

By Andrea Villar | Mon, 04/20/2020 - 13:00

Q: What problem do you solve in the market and why is it important?

A: Different cultures very often have difficulty communicating. This issue impacts their success when they work together. When I first left the US in September 2001, given the political circumstances of the time, Europeans were really not that wild about Americans. That was the first time in my life when I began to understand the depth of differences across global cultures. Shortly after my arrival in the Netherlands, I took a tour of The Hague with a friend. We saw a group of protesters with a very big sign in blood-red letters that said, “Take Bush to The Hague.” They meant that former President George W. Bush should be considered a war criminal and put on trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. I had never seen a US president perceived in that way. My six years of experience in Europe began my crash course in intercultural understanding and perspective.

In the Netherlands, I was based in Eindhoven at the European headquarters of an American company, running projects throughout Europe. Our executives and senior managers were all based in upstate New York and they really had no trust in the European team to execute large projects. This was largely because it was not done “their way.” Despite the fact that the US has developed many robust and advanced methods of working, there are different ways of working in every country that may be even more successful.

Observing the vast amount of conflict and having to learn things the “hard way”, I went from Europe to Singapore and then Australia over the course of 17 years, Each time I ran a project in a new country, it was another trial-by-error course in how that particular culture operates. Working for a huge management consulting firm as well as smaller companies outside the US gave me a completely new cultural education. After this, it became obvious to me that business people needed the keys to suspend their own innate reflexive reactions and listen to what the other person is telling them, to appreciate a different perspective.  In this way, they could be much more successful, much more quickly.

I continued working in the IT field until I returned to the US in 2018. When I returned, I decided not to return strictly to technical work. Because I find people endlessly fascinating, I knew that I could help them to be more successful based on the information I had accumulated thanks to my experience. Statistics show that over 70 percent of large projects or international endeavors fail because of miscommunication and cross-cultural misunderstandings. A great deal of money is lost daily and a considerable number of projects are delayed due to these challenges. Much of the time these disasters can be avoided by focused communication and with a willingness to understand the perspective of the other person.

Q: Having seen and identified this problem, what action did you take to address it?

A: When I returned to the US and decided that I was not interested in continuing the technical work in project management or program management. I found a group called ICI (Intercultural Communication Institute) and was granted a Fellowship at their summer session. I attended another session the following spring. These thought leaders and academics have been groundbreakers in the field of study called “intercultural communication”, which would have been incredibly useful to me earlier had I known about it. The challenge I have now accepted is how to combine this academic research with my business experience because this is still a very new way of thinking and working in the age of globalization.

I am very often told that I must speak many languages if I want to help people communicate. But it is not about that. While language is important, the key is behavior and where each country sits on a particular range. For example, Mexico is a high context communication country and the US is a low context communication country. This means that Mexicans operate as an old married couple and Americans operate as newlyweds. Living within and working in a high context country means that generations of shared experience exist without needing to be articulated. In Mexico, people expect you to read between the lines and take in the context of the situation. Mexicans do not need to spell every single thing out, every single word. But when you talk to a US American and ask for an explanation of something, they are going to give you 25 paragraphs. That is just one example, and every country in the world sits on a different part of that scale: high-context or low-context.  Mexico is also considered a “collaborative” culture where people work together to solve challenges. The United States is an “individualist” culture which, as you probably expect, translates into people being more concerned with their own agenda rather than the collective. These are only a few examples of the number of different scales which need to be considered to form a full understanding of the way a particular country operates

For example, I made an enormous mistake at a meeting in the Netherlands. I had a lot of experience in customer relationship management software and in the Netherlands it was a new product. At a large group meeting, I asked several questions about CRM projects in the country to a person who was above me in rank. He could not answer my questions, so the general perception was that I making him look inferior. That was not my intention. I was sincerely attempting to understand the experience level and goals of these projects in a country that was not my own.

This kind of mistake or simply lack of knowledge can be detrimental to one’s career. I had been perceived to be putting myself at a higher level than this executive which did not help me in the slightest on my career path in Amsterdam! What I do is educate people about where their country sits on any one of these particular scales, whether it is direct or indirect communication, high context or low context, individualist or a collaborative-based culture and compare that with where their business partners or team members sit in their respective countries. They probably can figure out by themselves that Mexico is collaborative and the US is individualist, but I assist that transition to occur more easily and quickly so they do not have to make mistakes with their clients in order to learn.

Q: How do you help a Mexican succeed when doing business with an American?

A: What I say to groups of Mexican people who want to operate in the US is that no matter who they are talking to they have to be prepared for the reality of what they are walking into. People in the US are often extremely judgmental and will be assessing them within minutes. They will have a very short window of opportunity to present themselves, their services and professional skills. Also, negative perceptions of Mexico and Mexicans are common, so I prepare them to be ready for those negative stereotypes and have their opposing arguments and evidence ready to articulate: it is going to come up, even if it is unspoken.

WorldWise Coaching & Training is an American company with offices in Phoenix, Arizona and Hermosillo, Sonora that helps people improve their intercultural communication to succeed in their business and gain the ability to work and communicate effectively with people from a variety of diverse cultural backgrounds. WorldWise is built on two decades of business experience across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Andrea Villar Andrea Villar Journalist and Industry Analyst