Books: Intelligent advice for those who do business abroad

Contrasting books on how to impress foreigners are reviewed by Julian Birkinshaw, one offering a personal development perspective, the other encyclopedic detail. We have all experienced the uncertainty and trepidation that goes with a first business encounter in a foreign culture. How should I greet my local contact - handshake or bow? How much time should we spend on social matters before getting down to business? And do I really have to eat everything put in front of me at dinner?

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Two new books offer contrasting approaches to the challenges of doing business in foreign countries. David C Thomas and Kerr Inkson, the authors of Cultural Intelligence, are academics based in Vancouver and Auckland respectively. Rather than offering a 'laundry list of drills and routines' for working in different countries, they argue that business people must develop skills at managing uncomfortable cross-cultural situations. They call this 'Cultural Intelligence' or CQ.

Yes, the term is carefully chosen to resonate with Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence (EQ). But the comparison is apt because both involve high levels of self-awareness, as well as an ability to connect with and understand others. Spookily, the October 2004 issue of Harvard Business Review has an article by another pair of authors with exactly the same title: 'Cultural Intelligence'. Perhaps this is a concept whose time has come.

Thomas and Inkson make a compelling case that business people need to develop CQ. You have three options: one is to bluster your way through encounters with foreigners, speaking loudly and assuming your Anglo-American approach to business will be understood.

This is what the authors call the 'be like me' strategy; it is sometimes effective, but it can backfire horribly. The second option is to learn the rules and norms of each country with which you do business. It's useful, but not enough. Which leaves option three - the development of CQ.

After presenting the argument for CQ, the authors then apply the CQ approach to a variety of business situations - decision-making, leadership, team dynamics and expatriate assignments. The argument in part one is convincing, and the vignettes describing cultural dilemmas make for an engaging read.

But part two ends up covering too much ground too quickly.

Whereas this book's strength is its sense of perspective, the strength of When in Rome or Rio or Riyadh is its attention to detail. Over some 400 pages, Gwyneth Olofsson tackles every conceivable aspect of national culture across the world's 33 largest countries. The book is essentially an encyclopedia of cross-cultural management, and probably the best of its type I have seen.

Olofsson first provides an overview of the book - why she wrote it and who is meant to read it. Thereafter, the book is arranged into themed chapters, dealing with such issues as getting acquainted, eating and drinking together, communication and language, and roles and relationships. Each chapter begins with Q&As about common cross-cultural mix-ups. These are often entertaining: the Japanese who wants to know why Americans insist on talking to him as if he were a child; the Frenchman who wants to take a bottle of wine as a gift to a Saudi Arabian colleague; and the South African who cannot understand why his Italian counterparts frequently interrupt him.

The second half of each chapter then provides the need-to-know information; for example, the 'Global Business Standard' for business greetings is a right-handed handshake (no kissing). The one major faux pas is cross-gender handshaking, frowned on in Hindu and Muslim cultures; minor exceptions are dealt with on a country-by-country basis.

Ultimately, much of the advice is common sense (don't get drunk, do exchange business cards), but there is also a wealth of practical material, such as eating times, forbidden foods and holidays. In sum, a really useful book for the inexperienced cross-cultural traveller, and a handy reference guide for any business operating overseas. It won't develop your Cultural Intelligence, but it will help you avoid any real blunders.

Finally, it's worth remembering that cross-cultural management is not just about overseas travel. England's football team has had to figure out the consensus-oriented Swedish approach to leadership, and British Telecom has now embraced the pragmatic and straight-talking leadership style of Dutchman Ben Verwaayen.

A quarter of the FTSE-100 companies are now run by non-natives, and Britain is a highly popular choice for expatriates and visiting students. More than ever, Cultural Intelligence begins at home.

- Julian Birkinshaw is professor of strategic and international management at London Business School, and fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research

Cultural Intelligence

By David C Thomas & Kerr Inkson

McGraw Hill Professional, £12.99

MT price £10.99

When in Rome or Rio or Riyadh

By Gwyneth Olofsson

Intercultural Press, £15.99

MT price £13.99

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

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