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Multiculturalism in the World of Business: an unavoidable reality

Whilst conducting a study around the issue of cross-culturalism and the extent to which working with colleagues from different countries (often via virtual means of communication) can affect the performance of a team, I uncovered some of the benefits and downsides of multiculturalism in the work environment.

Unilateral, nationalistic business thinking is by far outdated, as companies looking to thrive in the 21st century have to be aware of business opportunities in emerging markets or possibilities to subcontract, partner up with other businesses and supply products and services overseas. SMEs have slowly joined the bandwagon of companies that operate globally, therefore outlining the accessibility of doing business internationally, in spite of their reduced cash flows or investment funds. Therefore, wherever your career takes you, there are high chances that, at some point in time, you will be faced with an international collaboration. You will find yourself taken aback by the politeness of some people and simply shocked at the very dismissive attitude of others, soon discovering that, although each individual has a unique set of skills and a personality to match them, some traits are commonly recognisable in specific cultures or clusters of cultures (Western or Asian for example).

It is true that uncovering the most prominent traits of a culture and determining the best tactics to negotiate across national border can be a time-consuming and sometimes nerve-wrecking process, particularly in the setting of a project, with clear deliverables and set dates. But, at the same time, this process is unavoidable, because the benefits of assembling a cross-cultural virtual team for a project are immense.

As an example, in Western cultures being able to set tight deadlines and delivering work quick is considered effective and beneficial for business. In some cultures in Asia, on the other hand, planning to revisit results at various stages of a project is indicative of the commitment and seriousness of a project team. The two seemingly conflicting attitudes towards completion and setting deadlines of projects can cause frustration amongst team members, but it also has the potential to lead to a realistic deadline which allows the team to deliver a thoroughly checked project within a realistic time frame.

One other issue in multicultural teams is the language barrier. English has been, for the past decades, the lingua franca across the entire world of business. Over two billion of the world’s population speaks the language fluently, but only 359 million of these are native English speakers. However, many can agree that American and British companies have (at least so far) dominated the scene of multinational conglomerates. Although the fact that business communication is conducted in English is seen as matter of factly, issues with the language barriers can be raised on both sides. Native speakers can claim they feel frustrated with what they perceive as ‘strong accents’ or a non-native’s slower responses. On the other hand, native speakers tend to use jargon and metaphorical speak that will fail to resonate with non-native English speakers. Attempting to impose plain English in business interactions is a first step towards trying to minimise these issues.

All in all, however, apart from all the issues, the potential to exchange information with business partners from other countries can have an enormous positive impact, as the business practices which are specific to a country could easily be merged into the strategy and tactics of another nation, leading to increased prosperity.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages you have experienced or witnessed in multicultural business interactions and how can some cultural barriers be conquered in your view?

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