by Keith Carruthers MBA, SCMP

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

How Critical is Culture?

Over the past number of years, the global nature of business, and in particular, doing business with China, has been a hot topic that has gained considerable coverage by the press. If one was to look at any large news source with a reasonable amount of business coverage, we would be hard pressed to search the business section and not find some coverage of China. It has indeed become a fact of life in the North American business world.

Equally popular over the past decade has been the prevalence of articles discussing the critical nature of "understanding specific cultural aspects" when doing business internationally, and that lack of this critical knowledge would make doing business in these countries all but impossible. But is this really the case?

Although most reports of our ineptitude in understanding and recognizing cultural difference as North Americans is not unfounded, I believe that culture is not nearly as substantial a roadblock as the media make it out to be. Although there is no doubt that recognizing these cultural differences and modifying our business practices to show respect to the diversity that exists in the business community makes us feel good, is the right thing to do, and is indeed a positive step towards developing solid business relationships, the explosion in the global nature of business today has led to an enhanced familiarity in the ways in which different countries do business. This familiarity has in turn helped cultivate a strong sense of acceptance with behaviours outside of our normal cultural business practices. In other words, we are more understanding of each others cultural practices, and as a result, are not as sensitive to violation of these practices, as maybe we once were.

In my experience doing business internationally, I have run in to many practices that I was once unaware of. Despite the fact that I do my best to follow the majority of these practices as a means of showing respect and attempting to establish strong and meaningful new business relationships, I inevitably find myself "falling from grace" from time to time, albeit unintentionally. Despite these occurences, I have never felt disadvantaged in my business dealings as a result of these occasional "faux pas'".

In the end, maybe the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Maybe the concept of how critical cultural practices are, was once very much the case, but has simply become less and less critical as we have continued to evolve as global business citizens. Familiarity often leads us to becoming desensitized to our surroundings, so it is possible that our individual and unique cultural practices is yet simply another area that has become desensitized over time.

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