Other cultures are different. Fact.

If you are doing business with people from other cultures, you need to understand (and accept) that they are different, they behave differently, their values and norms are not the same as yours. And that’s a fact.

Some years ago, a central African country obtained a large cash injection from the EU for a project that was never implemented. A couple of years later they applied to the EU again for aid for a different project.

On that occasion, the rotating Presidency of the EU rested with a certain northern European country, who asked the Africans, “Where is the money we gave you for the last project?” No answer.

The Africans repeated their appeal for aid, but made no reference to the previous grant. In frustration, the EU President said, “We are happy to give you the aid for the new project, but if you didn’t use the last grant, show us the money and we will top it up for the new project.” No answer.

The Europeans then closed down their diplomatic mission and pulled out of the African country. They saw things in black and white and could not understand why the Africans were unable to show them the money or explain where it was.

I was reminded of that incident when I sent a sum of money to India in support of a good cause. Even allowing for variable conversion rates, the sum that arrived was 15-20% lower than I expected. I asked for a paper trail, but nothing happened, but I gather that the money had travelled through two or three banks.

Pandit Nehru once said that cash transactions in India (as in government spending) were like passing a block of ice from hand to hand: it would inevitably be smaller on arrival than when it started out.

It is, of course, easy to condemn. However, I as explained in my book, “Communicating Across Cultures”, different nations have different values and different ways of doing things. In the book I defined culture as “the way we do things around here”. And, of course, each nation has its own way of doing things, which will often be very different from your own.

Accepting that is the way to cross-cultural understanding. It’s the starting point.

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