One of the most important things you can teach workers who travel internationally is the importance of understanding the cultural norms of another country.  I don’t just mean customs like whether to bow or shake hands, or how to dress in the workplace, although those things are very important too.   But I also mean the less tangible elements of culture such as communication norms, individual vs. communal needs, expression of emotion, etc.

I learned about cultural norms in the school of hard knocks, and I still tell the story to this day.  While traveling in Thailand fifteen years ago, I had a motorcycle accident that badly injured a local man.  Although by American standards I had not done anything wrong, my passport was taken and I was told, “if the man was OK, everything was OK…if the man died, everything was not OK.”  The man died three days later.

Once the initial shock and sorrow had dulled enough for me to act, I tackled my situation in a typically American way.  I hired a lawyer and set about proving I was not at fault.  This was at odds with Thai culture, in which you can only “admit or deny” the charges, but you cannot prove them wrong.  That’s because Thailand has what is known as a consensus culture, in which group needs are more important than individual needs.  When someone has been hurt, the Thais consider the uninjured party to be responsible for making restitution regardless of whether they did anything wrong.  Especially when the uninjured party is an American and thus rich by comparison. And to “deny” the charges and talk about fault was not only an incomprehensible approach to the Thais, but it was also an embarrassing faux pas which caused everyone involved to lose face.

Even when my first lawyer “fired” me as a client, I didn’t get it, hiring a second lawyer and becoming even more aggressive about my situation.  It took the efforts of my family, who enlisted the help of a family friend married to a Thai woman and gave me a stern talking to, to make me see the error of my ways.  If I had not learned the lesson in store for me, I would likely still be in Thailand today.

The consequences of not learning culture may not be quite as dramatic for your average traveling executive, but they are still very real.  Don’t brush them off by handing employees a book to read; offer multiple resources such as workshops, mentors who have traveled in that country before, and time off to prepare.  Had my experience occurred on a work trip rather than a personal vacation, it would have been very expensive for my employer indeed.

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