Understanding Relationship Structures in Different Cultures

From Korea to Kenya to the Netherlands to Spain, with several countries in between, Hyo Yeon spent her formative years living in foreign countries as the daughter of a Korean diplomat. She has many memories of living abroad, but Kenya stands out. “It was amazing,” she says. “I was literally going to school in the middle of the coffee fields with a bunch of kids from all walks of life.”

The exposure gained from growing up around diverse people and having to familiarize herself with a diversity of countries and cultures has proven to be beneficial to Yeon throughout her career. She is currently general manager of the New York office of Schematic, an interactive agency with offices in eight cities in the US and overseas, that develops solutions for the Web, mobile devices, television, digital environments and other emerging platforms. The firm also offers strategic, creative, marketing, and technology services to Fortune 1000 companies.

With a little over 350 employees, Schematic is a relatively small firm, but that’s not stopping it from seeking global business opportunities. In fact, the firm experienced record revenues in 2008, fueled in part by new clients, some of which are international.

“There’s a big push over the next year or two to growing globally, which is the exciting thing for me being here now,” says Yeon, who has been with the agency for two years. “Our London operation is picking up lots of momentum and the New York office is volunteering a lot to help out.”

As general manager, Yeon is responsible for the profit and loss of the New York office and how it contributes to the performance of the overall company. “I’m also really active in developing business and having relationships with our customers and clients,” she says, adding that she is spending an increasing amount of her time going after international business. Her background has served as an advantage in many ways, as some global expertise is required when working and developing business relationships with international clients. “Sure,” she says, “one can study how international firms operate and read books on what to expect from Koreans or what to expect when you’re traveling in China, but cross-cultural working relationships require a little more of a nuanced sensitivity. I think I learned that by constantly moving around, constantly meeting new people and dealing with people from different cultures.”

Last year, her office worked on a project for a Korean client. In that case, not only was Yeon’s own ethnic and cultural background an asset, including being able to speak Korean, but she was familiar with the country’s corporate culture from working for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) for two years in Korea. “I knew going in to expect certain uncommunicated behaviors and expectations from them, which ended up helping us a lot,” she says, adding that she and her staff are still learning to better communicate with a new European client. “We’ve been having these e-mail exchanges and they are very abrupt,” she says Yeon. “Their responses are one word — ‘No.’ So you have to interpret what means. Does it mean ‘no,’ or should I respond and ask, ‘Should we talk more about this?’”

David C. Thomas, Ph.D., professor of international management at Simon Fraser University’s Segal Graduate School of Business in Vancouver, prefers the term “cultural intelligence” to “global expertise” and says Yeon’s experiences aren’t uncommon when interacting with people from different cultures in organizational settings. “There’s a lot of things that transcend language,” he says. “Let’s take context, because this is a classic case for Americans. The essence of the communication is in the message itself, the words that are actually spoken. For U.S. people it’s all about the words. We’re very precise about getting the language just right. But for many other cultures, particularly Asian and southern European, context is much more important, that is, ‘Who’s speaking? What’s the situation? What’s our relationship?’ For instance, the reason Japanese people exchange business cards in business communications when they meet each other is to establish the status relationship so that they know how to communicate with each other. Establishing the context of the relationship is very important in certain cultures because that’s going to dictate how this interaction is going to take place. For Americans, we tend to separate that line. We’re going to communicate the same way with everybody.”

If presented with the opportunity, Yeon encourages people to live, work or travel abroad in an effort to better understand and appreciate cultural differences. Sharron Steele did just that and took advantage of an opportunity to work at Silverkey Technologies in Cairo after receiving her master’s in education from Harvard University in 2007. Nicknamed “America” by her Egyptian co-workers, Steele says the six-month stint made her realize that she’s got a lot to learn about how the rest of the world operates. It also gave her a better appreciation of how American corporate culture is perceived abroad. “They believe that American companies are the best well-run companies,” she says.

That perception may have helped Steele on the job. “If I said something, for some reason it had more credibility as opposed to if an Egyptian [co-worker] said the same thing. It was interesting to watch that dynamic,” she says.

Or perhaps it was Steele’s admitted outspoken and straightforward style, which can both help and hurt in cross-cultural business interactions, Yeon says. “Try to listen and observe as much as possible before making judgments and speaking up, that’s one direction,” she says. “The other is you could be the loud, super-opinionated person who’s coming from New York. I’ve seen both of those styles work.”

Thomas, whose book Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally is due out later this year, says that in today’s global business environment it’s not possible to have all the knowledge that you need to be effective in every culture, but says there are general skills that will apply in every cross-cultural situation such as empathy, adaptability, and perceptual acuity. “These ideas are probably more important than developing a quote expertise,” he says. “Culture often operates below the surface. We often use the metaphor of an iceberg about culture, in that the vast majority of culture is like that 90% of the iceberg that’s below the water that we can’t see. My number-one piece of advice: Expect differences until similarity is proven.”

Image courtesy of SangamSolutions.Com