Never use your left hand when giving or receiving a business card, and think twice before slipping someone’s card in your back pocket. In most Asian cultures, that’s equivalent to sitting on someone’s face.
Always take a gift when going to a Chinese business meeting, but never offer a pen with red ink: writing in red signifies severing ties and suggests that death is forthcoming.
Increasingly, the ability to interact with people from other cultures is an important skill for business professionals — even those who never leave central Ohio.
“Of all the places that we go around globally, Columbus is a very diverse city. It’s amazing. It’s as diverse a major city that I’ve ever been to, and we have a melting pot of cultures right here,” said Dan Schmitz, regional head of research and development for the Americas at Abbott, a global health-care company.
Schmitz is one about two dozen Abbott employees and a host of other local business professionals who have gone through a global-fluency training session offered by the Columbus Council on World Affairs. The nonprofit organization began providing the sessions last year after seeing a demand for the services.
“There’s a need to better interact with people from different cultures,” said Patrick Terrien, president and CEO of the council. “It started with companies that were doing business globally that didn’t want to make cultural mistakes when working with folks from, say, China, or when they were hosting folks from Germany who were looking to invest here.
“And what we found as we’ve continued is there is surprising growth and demand from organizations and people who work entirely locally, but interact with people in international communities.”
According to the Global Report, a study measuring international influence in Columbus developed by Community Research Partners, 7 percent of Columbus residents were born outside the United States. Their top countries of origin include India, Mexico, Somalia, China and Ghana. In addition, Columbus is home to more than 450 foreign-owned companies, and exports support more than 63,000 local jobs.
For Schmitz and the rest of the Abbott staff, intercultural knowledge is essential. Ten years ago, only 15 percent of Abbott’s research and development was international, but now the share is about half, he said.
“All of us have had things where we’ve had to work cross-culturally and found it to be very challenging. And while I’d like to think that you can go out and Google ‘How do you make that polished interaction?,’ it’s not there,” Schmitz said. “There’s a lot of little nuanced personal touches.”
The council’s program, offered as a half-day session for $2,500 or a full-day session for $3,500, can be tailored to a client so it can focus on the cultures it interacts with most.
Brad Gosche, director of global education for the council, said programs have been developed for the Brazilian, Chinese, German, Indian, Israeli and Japanese cultures, to name a few.
Session leaders, all of whom have international business experience, teach how to anticipate the behaviors and motivations of people from other countries based on six general assumptions about their culture. These include how they interact with their elders and people of higher rank, whether they prioritize personal needs or the needs of a group, how far into the future they plan, and how feminism is viewed in the workplace.
For example, Americans are more likely to voice their opinions, and their relationships with their bosses are generally informal.
In contrast, a Chinese person is unlikely to speak up in a group setting, and the relationship with a boss is formal, with many demonstrations of respect.
“We focus on that gap,” Gosche said. “You’re going to be working with a Chinese customer in Chinese culture, so understanding where you maybe need to do a little bit of wiggling, where you need to adapt a little bit, is going to help you be more effective.”
Although some aspects of the training are highly specific — such as walking through a gift-giving procedure and learning how to properly present a business card to a Chinese person — understanding cultural norms can help people navigate interactions.
“Identifying where those differences lie can help all business professionals ... identify where they might need to stretch a little more to better serve their clients,” Gosche said.