A previous column, "Skills to Train Across Cultures," addressed cross-cultural differences in instruction styles, instructional design, and the impact of cultural values on student/instructor interaction. This column will address the cross-cultural considerations outside the classroom, which can significantly impact the success of a training program that involves participants from multiple cultures.
With the globalization of business, and the desire for globally integrated processes, the need for global training programs is critical. Given the need to economize, it is more important than ever that these training programs achieve their objectives. However, global training events are full of minefields. The hidden dimensions of cross-cultural differences can undermine even the most successful and well-intentioned training manager.
Consider the following:
A U.S.-based multinational corporation is conducting a global leadership training program at its U.S. headquarters with a large contingent from a recently-acquired company from Asia. As the director of training, you were asked to emphasize the international nature of the event. To be culturally sensitive, you have nametags printed for each attendee in both English and his or her respective national calligraphy in a beautiful red script. Some visitors take their tags and put them in their pockets preventing anyone from knowing who they are and from which country they come. What happened?
For the opening dinner reception, you made sure there was a good variety of foods. While the main course was a big U.S. steak, you also made sure there was pork-fried rice for Chinese visitors and Lamb Korma for your visitors from India. Many people did not touch the food. Why?
The centerpiece of each table was a floral arrangement accented by colorful chopsticks placed vertically in the flower arrangement. You noticed people removing the chopsticks. Why?
Each attendee was given the gift of a beautiful travel clock with the company's logo on the bottom. Many people did not even open the gifts, and a few left them behind. Why?
In the past twenty years, we have seen each of these cultural blunders mentioned above, and some that totally ruined an otherwise well-planned training program. Given religious diversity, differences in male/female relations, national differences, etc., a training manager must be cross-culturally competent or risk offending his or her trainees. Most of the critical factors can be learned, but they often are invisible to those not properly trained in cross-cultural competence.
We will review the explanations for the above misunderstandings, but realize that these cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
Why couldn't people wear their nametags? Perhaps they didn't want people to know who they were or where they were from? This is not likely. The reason some guests refused to wear their nametags is in some Asian countries it is considered very bad luck to have your name written in red. One's name is written in red when one dies—not an auspicious beginning.
The main course is a major blunder. While many Asians enjoy steak (Japanese in particular), others might not eat it at all. For example, a devout Muslim from Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, might be concerned that the meat was not halal—(prepared according to Muslim tradition). Of course, they would stay far away from the pork-fried rice.
Your Indian guests looked over the offerings including the Lamb Korma (your favorite Indian dish) and refused to eat anything beyond the salad and dessert. Was it that they didn't think the Korma was prepared properly? Not likely. Many of the guests from India were vegetarians and, therefore, none of the main courses were suitable.
Why did some of your guests remove the festively-painted chopsticks? Was it because it was inappropriate to paint chopsticks? Did they want to take them home as souvenirs? Not likely. Placing chopsticks vertically also is a sign of death. It is reminiscent of placing incense sticks to commemorate the loss of a loved one.
Finally, why didn't some people open their gifts and others left their gifts behind? In many Asian cultures, opening a gift in front of others is considered rude. So, why leave them behind? Perhaps they already had a clock? Not likely. Usually people would accept a gift because rejecting a gift causes loss of "face" to the giver. Perhaps the logo was inappropriate? Not likely again. The problem is in some Asian countries clocks are a bad omen. The word for clock in Chinese is similar to the word for death, and has a negative connotation, especially as a gift.
Given the increased importance of global training events, it is critical that training managers be sensitive to cultural differences. The very success or failure of your next program could depend on it.
Neal R. Goodman, Ph.D., is president of
Global Dynamics, Inc., a provider of cross-cultural and virtual workplace training. He has assisted more than 200 Fortune 500 companies to plan global training events. Neal will be addressing cross cultural training issues at Training 2010 in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305.682.7883