Sink or Swim: How to Stay Afloat When Thrown Off the Deep-end of a Foreign Culture

Whether you’re an expat adapting to a foreign country or an international manager in one’s own country working in a multicultural environment, you must ready yourself for integration.

To integrate means to “bring together and become part of a whole.”

As a foreign or international manager, it’s your duty to bring your team together – to make it a cohesive whole – and you can do this by taking action.

Sink or Swim

Just as you prepare yourself for negotiations, coming up with your objectives and the strategy you might use to achieve them, you must also prepare yourself for integration into a foreign culture.

As with every aspect of meticulously planned business – from putting together engaging presentations that appeal to clients to scheduling your time down to the minute – a cross-cultural business venture requires an extra layer of planning: preparing for the cultural differences and those potential monkey moments that accompany them.

Depending on your organization, you might not even receive cross-cultural skills training prior to departure.

This leaves you two options: take it upon yourself to prepare beforehand or just wing it when you arrive in your host country.

Either way, your host country colleagues and the friends you make will essentially become your “trainers,” while your entire host country – from its local streets, shops, and restaurants to your workplace itself – will be your training venue.

Daily interactions with locals, friends, and colleagues will become hands-on training.

You’ll be thrown in the deep-end and told to sink or swim.

Here’s how you swim.

Learn How to Prepare

In order to successfully swim when thrown off the deep-end, you must eliminate, as much as you possibly can, the culture shock.

This phase is called “Taking Action.”

Taking action involves a conscious effort to adapt smoothly and quickly, avoiding monkey moments in the process.

Being that you’ve already taken the first step of cross-cultural integration – Awareness – you’re already able to reduce cultural monkey moments by following the next steps: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting.

Accepting, Adapting, and Adopting are generic steps that help you integrate into any culture. 

However, knowing the culture in which you’ll be living, you can take specific action to prepare yourself, for example, by learning the cultural values and norms prior to arrival.

In the next few weeks, this blog will discuss a general methodology to efficiently learn the scope of a new culture.

The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

blog rice2

View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.