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Can law, finance, engineering or business be culturally neutral?

It's easy to tell people to 'keep an open mind' when doing business abroad. But exactly how open are you supposed to be? What if local habits expect something from you that is immoral or even illegal at home? "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is another popular soundbite, but since ancient times, the main business advantage of newcomers in faraway lands has been their different approach to solving problems.

It is equally easy to deny the importance of cultural differences in business, especially in activities with science or technology at the core: finance, engineering and the countless products and services based on information technology. “In business, there is really nothing new under the sun," the authors of The One Hour China Book wrote. "Consumers behave pretty much the same everywhere. Competition is pretty much the same everywhere. You just need to ignore the hype and hyperbole and stay focused on the basics.”

People follow such advice, make horrible mistakes and (such is human nature!) usually blame those who 'misunderstood' them. See this 2021 article on the painfullest cultural mistakes in advertising. See how devastatingly careless and even comical some of them are, how subtle others turn out to be, how dramatically management apologises and how their apologies are rejected. I think half of these heartbreaking conflicts were unnecessary and could have been avoided, although we can only guess which half.

In this video, which I edited out of a webinar for Enterprise Estonia on doing business with China, I explain why many of the fields where business leaders often feel safely protected from cultural diversity are in fact projections of local and regional cultural values. How law, finance, marketing and HR reflect the gap between local ideals about the way life should be, and the actual behaviour of business leaders—including foreign ones.

Let me know if you have examples of cultural 'blind spots' in leadership that you would like to share or discuss.

Here is the link to Erin Meyer's book 'The Culture Map':


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