Listen, Learn and Live – Cross Culture Approach

By Ali Syarief


Indonesia is a very unique country; we are a new nation but our history is steeped in cultural legacies, some good, others bad. Due to our disposition and history, which is quite unique in Java, we have a natural tendency to absorb the best from other cultures, and reject through natural selection, those that don’t suit our needs. So in many ways cross-cultural culture management is second nature to us.

The Javanese culture has the ability to absorb other cultures and religions. We have absorbed Hindu culture, Buddhist culture, Islamic culture, cultures of peoples of many islands. We understand Western culture; we were a Dutch colony for 350 years.

In some ways, you could say culture is my business. Personally, I’m an avid blogger. I write about things that interest me, covering religion, politics and culture.

The fundamental intention of cross-cultural training is to equip the learner(s) with the appropriate skills to attain cross-cultural understanding. Cross cultural understanding is the ability of people within business to recognize, understand and correctly respond to people, incidents or situations where misunderstandings might arise due to cultural differences.

There are three Ls of cultural competence. Be able to look and listen, learn, and live with the people you are working with. You need to be aware of the cultural differences, be able to absorb them, and apply them in every decision you make.

There’s a famous Indonesia proverb, which I’m sure you are all aware of serves as an example of cultural awareness. When pointing a finger at someone, remember 3 fingers are pointing at you. It’s a proverb I’m fond of for many reasons. But it also doubles up as a mirror.

When we visit other countries and cultures, we are always putting up a mirror and trying to see ourselves in it. Often we blame others when the problem is in ourselves.

Why is cultural competence important? Considering others from your own point of view does nothing to build respect, or trust. Without respect and trust how can you do business with each other? More importantly, how can you keep doing business with each other?

As a representative of the Australian Business Volunteers’ Representative in Indonesia, I have over the years met many interesting Australians who in my capacity I have been responsible in helping them work as volunteers in local companies. Roles I performed included screening applicants and helping them get their visas.

But think about this quote from an Aboriginal man in Australia-:

“Dealing with white fellow law is like playing football when the other team and umpire are applying basketball rules. Not only has the goal post moved, but there’s not even a goal post anymore.”

That’s the kind of misunderstanding you must avoid if you are going to do business with each other. Each must understand the goalposts. You must be able to see it if the other person does not see the goalposts in the same place that you see them.

At the beginning: the cultural interpreter

When you begin to try to do business, you need a cultural interpreter.

Recently I explored the Korowai people of West Papua. Often what attracts us to study their way of life is the perception of people like ourselves but at a lower level. We feel that we are civilized and therefore at a higher level than they are, even regard them as backward.

The Korowai people understand this, and resent it. When we arrived, unannounced, we were greeted with arrows. We had with us a cultural advisor and translator. He negotiated with them. I don’t know what he said, but he was able to explain our intentions to the people of the tribe.

Once our intentions were explained to them, we were able to live with them and document their ways. This was culture interpretation. Our translator is one of the members of the tribe, but who had lived outside West Papua. He was from a wider world, he understood two cultures, and he was able to bridge them. He interpreted more than language.

In that one week, I was able to learn about their culture. I came back to Jakarta questioning my own, looking to merge the best, so that as humans we can grow spiritually.

To begin to do business, you need a cultural interpreter with integrity, an interpreter you can trust to build trust. He has to be able to anticipate concerns, and address them, honestly and clearly. To do this, he must know how the people he is talking will be able to trust him to rearrange what you have said in a meaningful way. He also needs to know his way around local bureaucracy, such as getting permits and licenses, like I did, when I went to West Papua.

Delivering the service

In cultural terms, delivering a service has two aspects. Your organization must operate with cultural sensitivity, and so must the people who work for it. You need to approach it as a long-term relationship, and not just a one off.

It is very important to ask what do they want and what do they see you doing, explain what you want and not promise what you can’t deliver.
If you promise to deliver but do not you will not keep your customer for long. From the start you must be able to explain the service you can and cannot deliver.

Cultural understanding helps you understand what your customer needs, and what you can and cannot deliver. It eliminates misunderstandings. You do not want your customer’s cultural perspective to lead them to think you will deliver something you cannot deliver.

There is more to cultural understanding than preventing misunderstanding. You have to provide a service that’s not just a service in the way you want to deliver it but a service that meets the needs of the people you are providing it for.

You need culture capacity to educate your people how to work with your customers, as well as your company providing the service that your company wants to provide. It is very easy for someone in your company destroy a business relationship in its infancy. So for example, if you were TELCOM coming into an Islamic society, you would not want your staff to begin by promoting your pornography channel. Nor would you want your staff to serve beef sate when trying to impress the Hindu head of an Indian company. These are not culturally sensitive things to do.

For a company to culturally competent – to deliver services in another cultural context, its needs to-:

• Engage the customer and convince the customer that your company is the company best able to provide them with the services the customer needs
• Meet the customer’s special needs that are different to the needs of your other customers
• Collect data and analyze it to ensure that if mistakes are made, the misunderstanding is addressed, and the customer reassured that the mistake will not be repeated
• Fast access to good cultural and language interpreters and translators
• Collect cultural  information resources and make them readily available
• Recruit, train, retain culturally competent staff, from the receptionist to the managers
• Provide leadership in cultural sensitivity from the top down to ensure your business relationship is seen by your customer as a partnership
• Monitor cultural sensitivity standards at every level within the organization, constantly measuring to improve internal business processes, external service delivery, and staff development, to secure the company’s financial performance.

In addition to cultural sensitivity on the part of the company there must be cultural sensitivity on the part of every individual in it.
Front line staffs that directly interact with people of other cultures need to be trained before you put them in the field. You do not want them to accidentally behave in a way that upsets your customers. Being polite is not enough. You do not want your company to be presented as ignorant or worse, only interested in doing things its own way.

You also need to make sure all managers feel comfortable communicating with front line staff from different backgrounds, and can resolve differences between them before they can turn into cultural conflict within your company.

Your business relationship with your customer should be a partnership, built on trust and mutual respect. Without trust, you cannot do business. Staff at the bottom of your company is not going to respect other cultures unless an example is set for them. It is very important for leaders of company, high level management, to insist from top down that there be respect for the other culture, and to intervene quickly and effectively whenever it is not shown, before it can damage your company and its partnerships.

Cultural management need not be a chore. If you follow these guidelines, you will be well on your way to working and growing with your partner abroad. Thanks for your time, and I hope that you have got something out of this paper, which I will be presenting on the 24th of November in Batam Island, Indonesia.

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