In 2000, I began my career in human resources working for a large aerospace manufacturer in Long Beach, California. Being that this was my very first H.R job was I excited about all the possibilities that lied ahead of me. Six months into my employment, I was asked by the Director of Human Resources, If I was interested in joining a team that would be traveling to China later that year. Excited about the opportunity, I like most people began to research the history of the country and areas of interest I wanted to visit. Prior to our visit, our team met on several occasions to discuss our initiatives. The goal of our visit was to introduce a new applicant tracking software (ATS) to our two manufacturing facilities. The new ATS would be utilized by everyone employed at these two facilities. Excited about our project and destination, I couldn’t wait for the day to arrive.
On June 14, 2000, we left the U.S. en route to China. The flight was extremely long, but the idea of what lied ahead kept the adrenaline flowing. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by four managers from one of our facilities. I greeted everyone by addressing them by their first name and a firm handshake. Once everyone collected their luggage, we headed to our hotel room which was about an hour and a half away from the airport. During our long drive, I began to get hungry so I decided to chew a piece of gum I had in my laptop bag. Everyone in the van began to discuss the agenda for the next few days along with our plans. The driver asked if I was planning to do any site seeing during my stay. Like a child in a candy store, I smiled and began to share my agenda and the history that I learned prior to my visit. After a few minutes, I noticed that the driver was not interested, so I stopped talking.
The next day we arrived at the facility and began to schedule meetings with staff members across several departments. As the day went on, I became hungry so I decided to chew on another piece of gum. The day went on with little to no disruptions. Exhausted from my flight and time change, I decided to call it an early night. The next morning, I was called into the office of the Vice President of Operators for our oversees operations. Not expecting a call from him, I assumed that he wanted to greet us and ask a few questions about our project. As soon as I entered his office I felt something was wrong. I began to get nervous so I grabbed another piece of gum from my shirt pocket. As I sat in front of him, he simply stared at me. Awkward about the silence, I asked if everything was okay, his reply was “No”. He then informed me that he had received a couple of complaints from the four individuals who picked me up from the airport a couple of days ago. Astonished by the news, I asked what they complained about. The V.P gave me a run-down of all the things I had done wrong during my visit. He first started with how I greeted our host at the airport. He was told that I had called each person by their first name, shook their hand as if I wanted to break it and gave them my business card with one hand. He then added that I continuously chewed gum while talking with my host. Shocked by the news, I simply sat there in dismay. He ended his list of wrong doings by asking if I knew why they would complain about such actions. Dumbfounded by the news, I said no. I didn’t think anything was wrong since I do these type of things at home all the time. The V.P was quick to say “well you are not at home and here these types of actions are considered unprofessional and insulting”. When he said this, I almost fell out of my chair. I replied “what, what do you mean, how were my actions unprofessional and insulting”. He then asked if I had done any research on China and of course I said yes, with a big smile. He asked what kind of research, I replied: “well I know some of the history of China and places I wanted to visit while I was there”. He replied “Is that it”, I said, “yea, what else would there be”. He got up from his chair and began to walk towards me. He stopped and said, “Kid you got a lot to learn”. At this point, I was embarrassed and wanted to run out of his office. The V.P began to tell me that cultures vary from country to country and some cases region to region. He also said that I shouldn’t assume that what I did at home was okay to do in foreign places. He added that instead of spending time trying to learn the history and sites to visit, I should have focused my time on learning the business culture. He went on to tell me that calling someone by their first name, the shaking of hands was not a part of their culture. Chewing gum in front of others while talking or working together was seen as insulting. Dumbfounded again by the news, I repeatedly apologized to him for my actions and lack of education on foreign culture. After a few minutes of discuss the V.P handed me a book and asked that I read it quite quickly. The book was about Chinese culture and how one should behave while doing business in China. Not wanting to repeat the same mistake twice, I spent the next couple of hours reading the book. The next day, I returned to the facility and apologized to everyone for my actions and lack of education.
The moral of my story is educate yourself on becoming culturally sensitive prior to arriving in a different country. In our reading of “Managing Cultural Differences” authors Mora, Abramson, and Moran write
Cultural sensitivity should teach us that culture and behavior are relative and that we should be more tentative, and less absolute, in human interactions. First step in managing cultural differences effectively is increasing one’s general cultural awareness. We must understand the concept of culture and a foreign language. Further, we should appreciate the impact of our specific cultural background on our own mindset and behavior, as well as those of colleagues and customers with whom we interact in the workplace.
To accomplish such task, training is necessary prior to one’s interactive in a foreign culture. To increase effectiveness across cultures, training must be the focus of the job, while education thought of with reference to the individual… (Mora, Abramson and Moran, 2011, p. 26). One should also focus on obtaining two additional skills that are of fundamental importance for global people. The first skill is listening to understand. Many global leaders, particularly of nation-states, do not seem to possess this skill to a high degree. Listening is a symbol of respecting the dignity of others (Mora, Abramson and Moran, 2011, p. 26). The second is the skill of locating and using many very sophisticated cultural interpreters. Cultural interpreters can educate individuals on the complexity of foreign cultures and in my case this would have been an ideal resource to use.
Moran, R.T., Harris, P.R., & Moran, S.V. (2011). Managing Cultural Differences: Leadership Skills and Strategies for Working in a Global World. Jordan Hill, Oxford, UK: Elsevier.