Meaningful encounters are built on trust - respect and appreciation at the heart of international and intercultural communication

In global collaboration and business, where the most physically distant colleague or customer may be the closest partner on their computer screen, in global collaboration and business, where the most physically distant colleague or customer may be the closest partner on their computer screen, it is increasingly important to remember the cultures we live in, each in our own environments. Academic communities, international organizations or individual multicultural projects can work well within their own cultural norms, even if they include representatives from countries with hierarchical power relations as well as those with egalitarian ones, from countries that prefer individualism or collectivism, and from countries that are more or less tolerant of uncertainty or of an elastic concept of time. In order to find common understanding in international encounters, it is essential to find a sense of trust in that other person, whatever their cultural background. Common denominators can be found in surprising places, it is increasingly important to remember the cultures we live in.
kaksi miestä ja kolme naista kirjastossa, nainen ja mies heittävät yläläpsyn

In international and intercultural activities, national cultures merge with the cultures of organizations and communities, which we easily come to regard as universals. However, each nation has its own culture into which its members have been brought up. People within a culture have certain expectations about how things should be done. The values that guide these expectations are identifiable. However, a culture only reveals itself when it is compared with the way another nation is and acts.

In business, on the other hand, culture can be based on the values, customs, role models and rituals of the sector concerned, and national cultures are not applicable as explanatory factors in their own right. Companies, organizations and communities want their ideas, products and services to hit the global gold standard in countries whose cultures may be completely different from ours. To do this successfully, you need knowledge and understanding of both your own and the target country's culture.

Values in spotlight

In international encounters, symbols, rituals, heroes and values have their own meaning. Rituals are shared activities that have no technical meaning in themselves to achieve a desired end but are considered socially necessary or at least very important within a given culture. These include ways of greeting, the expressions of respect and social and religious ceremonies. Each culture values heroes of its own kind, living or dead, real or imagined, as role models and models of behaviour.

Culture also manifests itself in stories and knowledge, techniques and skills, tools and objects, art, food and drink. Words, gestures, images, objects, clothes, hair styles or various status symbols can have a specific meaning. However, these are not necessarily very permanent and are often copied from one cultural group to another.

However, at the heart of culture are values. They are tendencies to prefer one thing or situation over another: what is good and what is bad. What is permissible, beautiful, decent, normal and safe, and what is forbidden, ugly, indecent, abnormal and dangerous?

Talking about values is not easy, as it is often not thought through why one thing is actually considered better than another. You have to be aware of and even question your own motives, feelings and taboos, which you may not be used to verbalizing.

From awareness to change

To find a way into the mind and heart of another culture, you need cultural awareness. Cultural awareness involves not only knowing other cultures, but also knowing and understanding your own. Awareness of how one's own culture influences behaviour and ways of thinking makes culture visible to oneself and to others. Knowing what one's own world view consists of and being able to talk about it. This also makes it possible to understand others. To see what kind of clashes one's own cultural values can create in multicultural encounters and why. Cultural awareness is also about accepting and adapting to difference and different perspectives.

An interculturally competent person will be able to analyse situations and, if necessary, change their approach so that something positive comes out of any clashes. Intercultural communication requires the ability to communicate with people from other cultures in a way that gains their respect and trust.

For some, small talk and getting to know people is more important than for others, but ultimately, in different situations and with different people, the most useful way to work is to listen to and respect all parties. Good interpersonal, negotiation and networking skills and the ability to adapt your professional skills to local conditions and constraints when working abroad are valuable assets. Sensitivity and court vision are required.

Fortunately, there are many ways to develop intercultural skills. Knowledge can be increased, skills can be developed and attitudes can be shaped. Developing competence includes cultural self-awareness, knowledge of different cultures, global issues and trends, and language skills. A skilled communicator listens, observes, sees things from others' perspectives and assesses situations with perseverance and patience. However, without the right attitudes, knowledge and skills are not enough. What is needed is an appreciation of other cultures, openness and refraining from criticism. Diversity must be seen as an opportunity to learn and the ambiguity of situations and situations must be tolerated.

It matters who recommends

In many cultures, networks play a significant role in identifying opportunities for a new partnership or business. Individual-centred Finns have also noticed this, perhaps in a whole new sense than traditionally thought in the age of social media. Although we live largely at the mercy of algorithms, viral phenomena and the commercial success that will hopefully follow depend to a large extent on who recommended them. Influencer marketing is fundamentally the same as knowing what your cousin's colleague thought after trying the thing. The key is that the recommender can be identified with or seen as an authority, a kind of role model.

Hasse Eranka, Managing Director of Republic, a communications and marketing agency, told in a Meltwater webinar how the Finnish Tax Administration became a Finnish country brand in China. The Tax Administration, which set up ChinaDesk a few years ago to serve the Chinese, marketed itself to the Chinese as their first true friend. The advertisement said: “A good friend gives you relationship advice. A true friend gives you taxation advice. Vero, your first friend in Europe.”

Eranka's team found that the importance of personal relationships, trust and connections is what unite Finnish and Chinese culture. In China, people who are known by name are important, and you can do business with them even without written agreements. In Finland trust, frankness and honesty are valued and a source of pride as well. So it was also good to serve in the Tax Administration by the employer´s own name.

In China, names are more important than in many other cultures, and choosing a name for children is considered vital, even in business. Many people also choose to give themselves English names in order to better succeed in international business. Various name generators have been in heavy use. Knowing this, a marketing agency developed a Finnish name generator for the Chinese, and soon you could meet Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs at Slush, presenting their own Finnish names.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do – also with language

Hasse Eranka said that in order to make your message speak to markets in different countries, it is of course important to know your target audience and the channels they use. However, the most important factor, according to Eranka, is culture and understanding the communication within it. Adapting your product or service to a new culture also means adapting your message. It is quite relevant to know what the different colours, numbers and symbols mean in, say, Japan.

When you translate something into different languages, it is not just a translation, but an adaptation, where the concepts and phrases must be correct and appropriate. Many translation programmes make a significant contribution to bringing the message of an entrepreneur or a researcher to the attention of an international audience. However, if you really want to get your message across, it is always a good idea to test it first with someone you know.

Author: Minna Kilpeläinen, M.Phil, M. Ed., communications specialist, Kerttu Saalasti Institute, University of Oulu

Photo: Pexels