Learn to speak the right “language“

INTERCULTURAL TRAINING: The export engine has been booming again for six months now. Customers from abroad are queuing up, the order books in industry and mechanical engineering are filling up, and the VDMA already said in March that it was expecting zero growth by then. This is accompanied by an increase in international contacts – and foreign assignments.

For technical and management staff, the first foreign contacts are often mined terrain. “The mail annoys the addressee. They don’t say it – but they wait weeks for a reaction,” says Stefan Meister of Intercultures, citing a typical example. The trick, he says, is usually that although all participants speak English reasonably well, they just do not know the fine web of invisible rules of the respective foreign country.

Anyone who has to deal professionally with foreign countries should therefore be familiar with what it means to act as a German on the international stage. “Birgit Löding describes the common expectation that Germans are confronted with: “You are always punctual, always arrive at the agreed time. Moreover, the Germans are always very direct, they come to the point shortly after the “good day”, because they don’t want to waste any time with blabla.“ That’s why Löding, who works as a trainer on intercultural topics, recommends first of all dealing with your own culture and its perception by outsiders. Made in Germany is welcome everywhere in the world, but country-specific behaviours are not equally well received everywhere.

“Recognising differences” is therefore one of the principles of the training courses Intercultures organised for 60 target countries around the globe. “This is how managers best recognize ambiguities in an intercultural environment – and learn to deal with them,” says expert Stefan Meister. The more conscious a German is in dealing with the foreign culture of differences, the better he can adapt his own behaviour.

The experts advise against memorizing, practical exercises are target-oriented.

He doesn’t think much of memorizing. “The ten most important tips for doing business in China”, for example, Meister considers to be far too rigid to be prepared for all situations in business. “Learning instructions by heart doesn’t help everyday life in a foreign culture,” says the Berlin trainer. He advises to learn about the target culture through self-learning. Books about the country and travel guides are well suited for this.

Afterwards a training is meaningful, which simulates the later practice as good as possible. Birgit Löding, for example, who has lived in South Africa, Ireland, Australia and England, believes that this is the right way to go. She plays roles with the participants of her intercultural seminars. “They give more than a four-hour lecture about the rules of everyday life in Dubai”, says the trainer, “I am interested in other countries, other customs: If you work abroad or in global teams, you should be familiar with them in order to improve your interaction”. In groups of ten to 16 participants, Löding shows various role plays. For example, their customers learn how to deal with the situation when the person they are talking to is coming from a culture that doesn’t seek eye contact: Anyone who does not know how to interpret this behaviour as a rejection can also deal with it correctly.

Intercultural training can be useful in many professional situations.

The classic is a training course about a target culture, if an assignment abroad is pending. “Here a training can facilitate the start substantially“, says Intercultures managing director master. Because there is little time before most secondments, such seminars are usually compressed to two days. “These are quite enough as basic equipment,” says consultant Löding.

It is helpful however, if after the arrival in the goal country further coachings take place, in order to work on also detail questions of the everyday life. Intercultures therefore makes its own experts available in many target countries, but trainers have also had good experiences with remote consultations via video telephony (free of charge via Skype). “It is important that a service is available at all upon arrival,” says Löding.

Companies often fill vacancies with local staff more often than before, but intercultural training still has its place in everyday management life. “There are a lot of global teams and international customer appointments”, Stefan Meister describes the practice in many export-oriented companies. Preparing their teams for dealing with cultural differences is also worthwhile. “There is great potential for optimising cooperation.” Because even if the company language is English, that doesn’t mean that the Spaniards, Germans and Vietnamese sitting at a conference table also understand each other.

AXEL GLOGER www.intercultures.de January 2010