Mapping Cultural DNA

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“Cultural DNA” really does differ from country to country. Even over the long term, the attitudes and outlook of a people won’t be significantly be changed or altered. The oft spoken, and pat, answer to this is to embrace cultural differences to increase the chances for business success. I disagree. It’s not natural, or intuitive, to embrace something foreign–or to compliment conduct that you might even consider offensive (i.e., disrespecting contractual terms, spitting in public). My tack is rather to accept that differences exist and then bob and weave around the ones that I view as minefields. (i.e., selective disclosure of proprietary information if general concerns exist over I.P. rights).

It’s like what my parents taught me about marriage: if you marry someone in the hopes of changing her, you’re consigning yourself–and her–to misery. So it is too with cross-cultural friendships and business relationships. Friends can appreciate and value each other. But they don’t change for the other party. Two people who are raised half a world away, schooled in, say, Cartesian and Confucianism, and accustomed to dissimilar foods and spices will never—borrowing a statistics phrase— revert to the same mean, not even over a period of years.

Still, I believe that most people, regardless of nationality, are aiming to do the right thing and appreciate it if you try to do the same; in my experience, good intent is a universal concept. I’m not blind, nor naïve, to the fact that different people’s definition of “right” might still be world’s apart–and the subject of much disagreement and debate. But I do believe strongly in the universality of trust and friendship. (i.e., relationships solidly continuing even when a business deal collapses). I have had countless people around our dinner table for home-cooked meals, to play with our kids and to enjoy coffee, tea or a post-meal glass of port. The native languages are often different, and my guests’ affinity for my wife’s terrific cooking may not be as strong as my own. But the smiles, appreciativeness and respect are a constant.

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About Author

Gregory Stoller

Greg Stoller is actively involved in building entrepreneurship and international business programs at Boston University in the Questrom School of Business. He teaches courses in entrepreneurship, global strategy and management and runs the Asian International Management Experience Program, and the Asian International Consulting Project.

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