Learning by traveling: 3 tips to build intercultural competences

The world is becoming more and more connected, nothing new, right? – and we at zapliance are noticing this too.

Our products are now used in over 50 countries worldwide!

But globalization does not only affect the flow of goods – we auditors are also traveling the world more and more.

But of course, this has changed in the pandemic.

International travel in particular is often cancelled – and I can imagine that some auditors find that a pity.

And others are maybe relieved less travel is involved in their job at the moment.

Because even though traveling to new cultures is exciting and there is a lot to see and experience, auditors also encounter intercultural problems time and again.

The article is therefore mainly an expression of my own anticipation of the recurring encounters with other cultures.

In many countries, different hierarchies prevail.

Some time ago, for example, an auditor friend told me about a trip to India to a medium-sized subsidiary.

He received a very friendly welcome there – even the managing director of the company himself came to pick him up from the airport.

A festive dinner followed, everyone got on well and my colleague was very confident that he would be able to do his work without any major problems and then even have some time to see the country.

But as you can probably guess by now, that was not quite the case.

Because already on the second day it became clear:

the exchange of information between the auditor and the department heads on site was different than my colleague had imagined.

Every time the auditor wanted to sit down with one of the department heads, they also called the managing director – a completely natural process in India, where hierarchies are very important.

So, none of the department heads wanted to override the managing director and communicate with the guest independently or on their own responsibility.

At the same time, the managing director also wanted to honor his guest with his own presence – after all, the guest was to be given the necessary recognition by working with a colleague who was his equal in the hierarchy.

My colleague, however, had not informed himself in detail about Indian culture beforehand and was accordingly surprised and frustrated – he wasn’t used to that as the German culture is quite different.

The result:

the auditor found himself repeatedly in 1:1 conversations with the managing director, in which the latter, however, could not answer the auditor’s questions.

Understandable, after all, as managing director he had a completely different, much less detailed insight into individual processes than the department heads.

What the auditor could not understand:

questions the managing director wasn’t able to answer remained unanswered.

There was a simple reason for this:

the managing director wanted to remain polite and not annoy the auditor with his lack of knowledge.

On the other hand, the auditor had a hard time hiding his displeasure about the situation and sometimes reacted tense – a no-go in Indian business relations.

Unsurprisingly, the auditor’s work became a Herculean task – and the days off he had dreamed of after the work was done, remained just that, a dream.

Cultural misunderstandings happen – but they don’t have to.

But how could the situation have been solved differently?

That is difficult to judge from a third-party perspective.

Nevertheless, in this article I will try to go into more detail on how to avoid intercultural misunderstandings and difficulties.

But this much I can already reveal:

A possible solution to this auditor’s dilemma also comes up.

My first tip when it comes to building intercultural competence is preparation.

If you are planning a business trip to a country whose culture differs significantly from Germany’s, you should at least roughly inform yourself about the foreign culture beforehand.

This includes language basics – words like “thank you”, “please” and “good day” should be mastered in the host language.

On the other hand, you should also find out about basic behavior in standard situations.

For example, how do I behave when greeting someone – do I bow, shake hands or even both?

Also important for business trips:

Find out how to deal with hierarchies.

One way to avoid the difficulty with the managing director from India described in the introduction might have been to travel in pairs.

Thus, the auditor could have been accompanied by an assistant or a less senior colleague.

In this way, the auditor could have communicated with the managing director “on one level”, while his colleague one level down would have communicated with the department heads.

The best remedy for tension: relaxation.

My second tip for avoiding intercultural conflicts: Sit back, observe, and imitate.

Try to react to your counterparts and not act.

This gives you the opportunity to be guided by the locals and not allow yourself any “cultural missteps” – after all, you are the guest and should orient yourself to the local customs.

For example, when eating, pay attention to how the person sitting next to you uses his or her cutlery – and simply follow suit.

My third piece of advice is of a more fundamental nature and concerns the attitude that makes contact with new cultures much easier:

stay relaxed and, above all, be open to new things!

I know this is often easier said than done, especially in the stress of a big trip – but it is worth a try.

Don’t try to impose German principles, but realize that things are different in other countries.

And usually with good reason.

A positive side effect of this attitude:

if you look at other customs and traditions with an interest in new things and don’t compare them with Germany, you remain more relaxed.

And it’s also easier for you to adapt to the cultural conditions yourself – such as taking off your shoes when you’re a guest at a stranger’s house.

And who knows:

maybe you like one or two customs so much that you adopt them at home, too?

As you can see:

Contact with people from other cultures is often not that easy.

But with a few adapting also your behavior you can at least make it a little easier.

And who knows: maybe the tips mentioned will help the other way round, too.

For example, when an international contact visits your company in Germany and you sometimes find it difficult to understand their behavior.

After all, tolerance is not a one-way street.

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