As business expands globally, so much rests on the ability of people from different cultures and countries to communicate faster than ever. But emphatic messages often dissolve into confusion. What begins as a significant conversation never reaches the other side of the table.
It’s not just about what happens when a non-native speaker commits a language faux pas, or associates from traditionally passive Eastern nations allow a more aggressive Westerner to dominate a meeting long before they begin to interject their own views. Of course, these aren’t just superficialities, and they do need to be overcome.
But bridging the cultural chasms that divide nations throughout the world lies at the core of unifying the world, and it requires radical shifts in perception—not just a course on international etiquette coupled with utilitarian foreign language programs.
It demands nothing less than a worldwide paradigm shift, says Daniel Butler, the Thomas Walter Professor in Marketing at Harbert College.
“It means looking in the mirror first, saying, ‘Who am I and what do I do, and why do I do it?’” Butler says. “People need to understand that just because they have a view, it’s not the right view. It’s their view.”
Butler, who has spent considerable time in more than 30 countries while studying and working in business and international marketing, says that sense of self-awareness can transform the way you relate to the people around the world.
To grasp and overcome geographic and cultural challenges, he adds, students, professionals, and anyone who regularly engages in business with people from other nations need to step out of their comfort zones, experience at least a taste of life among their global cohorts, and take advantage of diverse cultural opportunities in their own communities.
He says most of us see the world through an ethnocentric lens; we’re comfortable with the familiar and apprehensive about anything outside our limited geographic boundaries. People with polycentric views may see themselves as culturally enlightened. Because they’ve been to the Bahamas a couple of times, they assume they can say, “I know what the world is like.”
People who have a big-picture, whole-world mentality are geocentric. They really do know how the world operates. They have lived and absorbed it. Butler says it’s not difficult to reach this stage.
“If you just have an open mind and an adventuresome attitude, you’ll be surprised to find what’s on the next corner,” he says.
In the past decade, the insular way of life that’s become the norm in the US has given way to a more curious, adventurous spirit. And it’s being led by millennials—the generation born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center. There are roughly 73 million millennials in the US alone, and they comprise 20 percent of all international travelers, the United Nations estimates.
And when they go abroad for business, they tend to make time for cultural enrichment. They savor local experiences. They stay in local neighborhoods, set their own routes, dine on authentic cuisine. A recent study from Airbnb found that millennials are spending their money not on things, but on travel, taking about three or four international trips a year. And on those trips, most insist on living like the locals.
Along with sites such as Hostels.com and Couchsurfing.com, Airbnb operates as a “home-away-from-home” in foreign lands. This has become the go-to model for young travelers all over the world.
Tara Cappel founded For the Love of Travel, a company that organizes trips for young professionals seeking to travel the world with a sense of purpose. With a combination of wanderlust and intense longing for authenticity, the generation is shifting the nation’s global outlook.
“Millennials don’t just see travel as something we do, we identify with it,” Cappel told Forbes. “We consider ourselves citizens of the world and we have an enthusiastic desire to immerse ourselves in another place and return rejuvenated, inspired, and ready for our next adventure. We are travelers.”
Cappel added that where designer goods used to be the means for “showing off,” authentic experiences in niche locales of foreign countries—she mentions studying the art of ravioli with a Tuscan chef as an example—have far more currency among her peers. They may be racking up social media posts of their travels just for status, but Cappel says the effect is likely deeper, more long-lasting, and impactful.
“. . . I think the more people travel, the more present they become, and eventually they’re happier with one great photo than a photo of everything,” she says.
That perspective has increasingly merged into the mainstream.
Hyatt Hotels’ debut of an ad during the 2017 Academy Awards broadcast—the brand’s first television ad since 1985—provided a pivotal moment of clarity for its audience, researchers Greg Paull and Shufen Goh wrote in their book Global CMO.
The hotel group underscored the need for cultures to come together with its World of Hyatt global platform. Paull and Goh reported that the spot, a series of personal vignettes dramatizing cultural barriers transforming into cross-cultural unity, garnered 3 million views on YouTube and “sparked conversations around the power of understanding, brought awareness to cultural barriers and showed how we can break through them to stand together and unite as one.”
In the spot, scenes of people from myriad cultures encountering one another, first under clouds of suspicion and then through images of kindness and cooperation, unfold as a cover of Dionne Warwick’s ‘60s hit song “What the World Needs Now Is Love” sets the tone.
Of course, that’s a utopian vision. But maybe it’s something the world can aim toward.