Crossing The Cultural Divide

How many times do we hear it? We live in a global economy. It seems like practically every project seems to be spread over two or three continents and four or more time zones. This makes a project manager’s job even tougher. How do you get all these people on the same page?

So many years ago I setoff on a mission to learn as much as I could about every country I worked in. I found out a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. During my first trip to Japan I went out alone for a meal one evening and confidently ordered my meal. I was shocked when they brought a dinner for six. Yikes. My gracious hosts eventually bailed me out. But the lesson was clear; be careful what you ask for: unless you know what you’re doing.

It’s ok to fail. It’s not ok to sit on the sidelines. I tell all the project manager, join in, learn about and get into the country. Show a sincere and keen interest in the other person’s life, culture, country, work and life. Show them you care.

Start with the language. You don’t have to become an expert. Just learn the basic polite phrases. The basics like “thank you, yes, no, excuse me, I’m sorry, and all of the “goods” Then you can advance to practical phrases like “One beer,” “Where is the toilet?”, and “I’d like to order something that’s not still alive, please.”

Luckily there are plenty of resources. For $50 you can get an SDIO memory chip with 8 hours of listening time that will teach you all of these basics (how to order a beer or ask someone to dinner and pay the bill). Pimsleur language programs have worked well for me. My best friends even think I sound like a (Japanese) native.

Check out their web site where you can listen to a full half hour of any language.

If you’re going to Japan, learn to say “I’m sorry” first, and listen to the sections on apologies twice!

More tips later: and pass on some of your own.


4 thoughts on “Crossing The Cultural Divide”

  1. User Avatar

    So true, Frank. When I’ve taken the time to learn to say a few words of the language of my colleagues they have been impressed far beyond what I felt I deserved. Muttering a few ill-formed words of Armenian during my work there a couple of years ago elicited cries of delight and hugs from the women and astonished looks and smiles from the men – – – okay, maybe it was the other way around. Anyhow, the best resources I know for learning conversational speaking of a language come from Pimsleur. Their audio programs are easy to listen to while commuting and make you sound like a native. They have this weird wasy of pronouncing the word from the end syllabus and then adding the next syllabal closest to the end, and so on, until you get the whole word. It somehow makes more sense to my brain than trying to parse the whole word, greatly improving pronounciation. You can find their products at and on Amazon, of course. And there’s a great web site that sells 4 page guides to pretty much every country in the world for just a few bucks. If you’re working on a virtual team, it’s a quick way to get educated about where your colleagues are living!

  2. User Avatar

    When it comes to languages, American business people are at a significant disadvantage dealing with international clients because we have historically been geocentric and consequently have not been trained to be multilingual or even bilingual. The rest of the business world is well ahead of the U.S. project manager in being able to communicate in multiple languages. This should be a real concern since communicating should be the “prima donna” skill of the project manager.

    When dealing with international customers on past projects, our organization would hold business meeting in English and inevitably the customers would revert to their native language when they wanted to discuss issues among themselves. Usually, I would feel a little inadequate and at a disadvantage when this happened. I found myself trying to read their facial expressions and body language to discern their discussions. I now wish I would have a concerted effort to learn some of their words and common phases. I think I would have gained some admiration and respect from them for making the effort to understand their language. I have talked to other project managers who have learned something about their customers’ native language and common customs and they believe it led to better business relationships.

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