Monday, January 1, 2001

Cross-cultural skills for the international business traveler


By Steve Niles

There are many great advantages mobile computing can offer international business travelers, and no doubt many of you reading this magazine fall into that category. As you well know, then, doing business abroad brings with it unique challenges in terms of communication and culture. If you're not careful, it's all too easy to make a potentially devastating social gaffe.

While teaching high school in a primitive village in the Solomon Islands with some other Americans, I overheard my friend Bob relate this horror story. He went out one Sunday morning to shower under a standpipe positioned on the beach. The pipe was surrounded on three sides by walls made of woven palm fronds, with the opening facing out to sea. Ignoring the local convention of bathing while clothed in a sarong, Bob stripped down completely and proceeded to lather up. Of course, it was not long before a family of Solomon Islanders puttered by in a motorized canoe on their way to church. With nothing but a bar of soap to conceal him, Bob had no choice but to smile and wave to the shocked Islanders as they cruised by, mouths agape.

Besides the possibility of offending your hosts as Bob undoubtedly did, a less than clear understanding of the culture you're working in can also lead to culture shock on your part, which can make it difficult for you to do your job to the best of your abilities.

An easy remedy for these uncomfortable situations is to familiarize yourself with basic cross-cultural sensitivity skills. You'll find The Cross-Cultural Business Pocketbook, by John Mattock, particularly valuable in this regard. It's available from at Even if you're not interested in the book, click on that URL to see a very cool bouncing logo. Mattock is an independent management consultant who, along with his wife Susanna Lyddon, runs Lyddon-Mattock Associates, which offers courses on presentation technique, assertiveness, negotiation skills, team building, cross-cultural sensitivity, and conference facilitation.

Early on in The Cross-Cultural Business Pocketbook, Mattock outlines the type of business professional who will find value from his book. In short, you'll find it useful if you:

  • Travel abroad on business;
  • Act as host on your home territory to foreign business partners;
  • Communicate from headquarters to foreign subsidiaries, or vice-versa;
  • Work on projects as part of a multinational team;
  • Organize conferences where the nationalities will be mixed;
  • Develop the careers of staff who must travel;
  • Want to improve your relationship with a business contact overseas;
  • Feel curious about other ways of seeing the world and other ways of doing business.