Mendoza School of Business

Cultural Travelers: Global Careers Cross Boundaries Greater Than Geography

Published: April 24, 2015 / Author: Liana Cafolla

CFA Institute Magazine interviews Elizabeth Tuleja, associate management professor and international communication expert, about the implications of cultural misunderstandings in international business. 

When it comes to navigating the often slippery paths of other cultures, CFA charterholders Alex Proimos, Shirley Low, and Olaf Stier have learned many lessons about how to adapt during their various career moves around the world.

Soon after finishing his studies in applied finance and business and finance law in his hometown of Sydney, Australia, Proimos, CFA, decided to venture abroad. Over the next several years, he moved first to Argentina (his first time living outside of Sydney) and then to Peru, Haiti, the Netherlands, and now the US.

On the whole, his international experiences have left him with a very positive view of human nature. “What I’ve noticed is the average person is very generous,” he says. “In most places, people are kindhearted and willing to help you.”

But Proimos, who has always traveled alone, has also had some hard-won learning experiences during his travels. Culturally, he found the Argentines warm, friendly, and hospitable, and their behavior even familiar, perhaps because of their USstyle education. Many of them also spoke some English.

In Peru, however, the language situation was different.

“The issue with language was hardest in Peru because of working full-time in Spanish where people hardly spoke English, and their accent was different from Argentines,” he recalls.

Undaunted, Proimos set about the challenge of learning Spanish at the age of 28 and now speaks it with professional proficiency.

Working as the chief financial officer of a waste management company at the time, Proimos also found the Peruvian business environment very different. He often had problems getting responses to his professional inquiries. “As soon as I asked questions about finances, there were roadblocks,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one virtue Proimos learned to value from his time in South America was patience. “I learned to try and really slow down—a life skill, really, to be more patient,” he says.

Communication styles vary widely across cultures, he found. While in the Netherlands and Argentina, he found it very normal to speak out when he saw anything wrong, but that was not the case in Peru.

“As a CFA charterholder, you’re told if you see a problem to raise it,” he says. “It’s something I still struggle with today. You need to adapt to individual personalities and standards of business behavior as much as adapting to countries and cultures.”

Proimos advises others who are moving to a new culture to tread carefully in their first days in a new office.

“The safest route is to observe,” he says. “Try and understand the relationships. It’s very easy to be over-enthusiastic, and you might step on someone’s toes.” That can make for a disastrous start, he adds.

Proimos’s experiences and advice are supported by global research on the best ways to successfully adapt to a new work culture.

Communication skills are vitally important but that may not necessitate learning the local language, says Bertha DuBabcock, associate professor in the department of English and communication at City University of Hong Kong. “The importance of learning the local language varies according to country, nature of the job, and the working language in a particular company,” says Du-Babcock, whose research focuses on first- and second-language business communication behavior between cultures.

Although learning a language at a professional level may take several years, understanding—as opposed to speaking— the language can bring huge benefits and a faster return.

“Learning to understand even if you cannot speak prevents one from being excluded, and listening ability precedes speaking ability,” Du-Babcock says. “Listening is an underdeveloped skill that can be the key to success.”

Shirley Low, CFA, faced a double language challenge when she moved from Singapore to Switzerland with Credit Suisse about 10 years ago. She quickly had to master not one but two new languages: French in Geneva (her first city of residence) and German when she moved to Zurich.

“The first couple of years working overseas are tough, full of good and bad surprises and challenges,” she says. “They can also be frustrating, especially if one does not speak the language and therefore is totally dependent on colleagues to help with translation at work.”

In contrast, Olaf Stier, CFA, found that moving in the opposite direction—from his native Germany to Singapore— was a breeze. Language was never a problem, and cultural differences have been stimulating rather than stressful, according to Stier, who is head of treasury (Asia) at Commerzbank in Singapore.

“This is a global city, and as in most places in the world, if people are open-minded and respectful to each other, misunderstandings are tolerated,” he says. “In fact, cultural differences will be enriching for all sides. I like leading and motivating people from different cultural backgrounds in a global organization.”

Low, who is now head of APAC and managing director at STOXX Ltd., found adapting to different cultural behavior more complex. In her experience, Europeans generally placed less emphasis on building a relationship before trying to close a deal.

“In Europe, relationships take a back seat compared to the right product and the right pricing,” she explained. “Therefore, it takes longer to close business in Asia, as it takes a while to develop a relationship with the client.”

Finding that the Swiss were more direct communicators than she was accustomed to in Asia also took some getting used to.

“Asians, in general, are less direct and more subtle when it comes to giving negative feedback,” says Low. “We have our indirect way to address conflicts, and this has to do with our culture of ‘saving face’ for the other party. After working in Switzerland for a while, I have realized that directness can also be a virtue and is maybe more efficient as the feedback is crystal clear to all parties. However, this can be painful if you do not understand the culture.”

Cultural misunderstandings can have implications for professional financial behavior, according to Elizabeth Tuleja, associate teaching professor of management at the University of Notre Dame and an expert coach and speaker on intercultural communication and global leadership.

“When communicating with people who are different from you, it is important to make sure that you are on the same frame of reference—a concept or term that you understand may not be understood in the same way by someone else,” she says. “For example, the IFRS—International Financial Reporting Standards—have been designed to represent a ‘global language’ of sorts so that accountants can interpret company assets in comparable terms across borders. However, what accountants are finding is that business colleagues from other parts of the world are interpreting basic concepts, such as assets and liabilities, differently. It is critical to remember that you can’t just assume that either rules or a person’s interpretation of the rule is going to be the same.”

Tuleja suggests starting to develop an awareness of cultural differences prior to departure by studying the new culture, reflecting on or internalizing the differences, and then practicing them.

“The best thing that a person can do who is getting ready for an assignment abroad is to open their mind and their attitude and start learning as much as they can,” she says. “But it’s not just the learning, it’s the ability to be reflective and open to the possibilities that exist. We need to have a global mindset and try to see things from somebody else’s perspective.”

Like Du-Babcock, Tuleja emphasizes the primary importance of listening as a skill that helps achieve cross-cultural understanding. Empathetic listening is the most effective method, according to her, and it can be understood by referring to the Chinese character for listening—ting—which has three parts: the ear (to hear what is being actually said), the eyes (to read body language, tone, and emotional state), and the heart (to understand or empathize).

Tuleja also uses cultural dimensions—the country norms of a given culture—in her training to help people understand the different behavioral tendencies in other cultures. Some dimensions may be particularly useful as starting points for CFA charterholders who are planning to move abroad.

For example, high-context communication, common in Asian cultures, assumes that a large degree of shared values and understanding exists between the parties so that certain things are understood without needing to be explicitly said. Additionally, behavior, such as body language, is important. This contrasts with low-context communication, common in Western cultures, in which facts, information, and the spoken word take priority.

“For a CFA charterholder, this would mean that a client [from a high-context culture] may not explicitly tell you that he is upset; the way it might be handled is that he doesn’t return phone calls or emails and you might hear it through the grapevine,” says Tuleja.

Another dimension is direct communication, in which you say what you mean without disguising the message. This contrasts with indirect communication, which features implicit messages and conflict avoidance. “For a CFA charterholder, this would mean listening for what is not said,” explained Tuleja.

A third dimension contrasts hierarchy, in which status is important, with equality, in which all parties are presumed to have the same social status.

The three dimensions can be helpful starting points for building knowledge about a culture, but Tuleja warns against stereotyping.

“You should never assume that just because someone is from China, they’re going to be more indirect or collectivistic, because we are all individuals, and we have our own unique cultural preferences when it comes to communicating,” she says.

Whatever the challenges of working in different cultures, CFA charterholders are unanimous about the richness of the benefits.

“Always be ready to take the plunge,” advises Low. “Working in a new cultural environment always adds to one’s experience and helps one grow personally and professionally.”

Read this story on the CFA Institute Magazine website.