Becoming Culturally Fluent: Understanding the Variances of Culture across Asia Can Enhance Business and Communication

Article excerpt

I can't count how many times I've been asked a question that starts with, "In Asia, how do they ...?"

It's encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Encouraging, because at least they're asking (rather than barging ahead without thinking). Discouraging, though, because they're asking the wrong question. There is really no such thing as "Asian" culture.

Culturally speaking, it doesn't make any sense to treat diverse Asian markets such as India and China the same. Would you ask, "In the Americas, how do they ...?" and expect the answer to cover both Canada and Brazil?

Thus, the most important part of cross-cultural communication is not trying to grasp what some nonexistent "Asian culture" might be, but becoming what is called "culturally proficient."

Cultural proficiency doesn't mean memorizing every cultural nuance of every market. It's knowing when to listen, when to ask for help, and when-finally--to speak.

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Cultural proficiency in media relations

Unless they have a high degree of cultural proficiency, our clients encounter the greatest difficulties with media relations. Americans are often accused of being culturally insensitive and are often cited for cultural gaffes. But the problem isn't limited to Americans. Clients from various parts of Asia have arrived at my office scratching their heads over dilemmas like these:

* Chinese clients hate to include a quote from a spokesperson in their press releases because it is seen as giving undue credit to that person; however, international journalists, especially British and American ones, won't publish a story without a quote.

* The spokesperson for an Australian client took the trouble to give all of his junior communication specialists the opportunity to share their diverse opinions during a get-to-know-you meeting with a group of editors and reporters from a South Korean newspaper. However, the Korean editor-in-chief left confused and insulted. In his opinion, the Australian boss should have presented his team's unified opinions, and the junior staffers should not have contradicted him.

A multilevel approach in these situations will lead to better results.

1. Any spokesperson outside his or her home country should become familiar in a general sense with the ways in which culture and media culture may vary. These may include gift-giving protocol, sense of time, attention to hierarchy, sense of responsibility and definitions of professionalism.

2. A professional media trainer should provide the spokesperson with either a briefing or a full training session on the specifics of the media in that local market. The spokesperson should insist that the training cover all of the areas mentioned above. The best trainer is someone who has enough local experience to know the facts, but also enough experience in the culture to highlight what's the same and what's different.

3. Media relations professionals with experience in the target country should conduct the initial phase of media outreach, and be on hand during any interaction with the spokesperson.

It's true that media everywhere--Asia included want to find a locally relevant story. But if they wanted just to hear about their own country, they would not need to talk to a foreign spokesperson. There's nothing duller than the same Wikipedia statistics trotted out by someone who arrived in the market 24 hours ago. Instead, an international spokesperson can create a more compelling story by comparing the local situation to other markets that he or she is familiar with. For example, a spokesperson flesh from an African assignment declared to a group of Vietnamese media that "Vietnam may be a developing country at the moment, but it can never be called a poor country!" Their faces beamed as they finally heard someone echoing their own hopes.

Creating cultural proficiency in communication

Just as in media relations, attaining cultural proficiency in other forms of communication is a process with multiple steps. …