Like a few of my Japanese junior high students who used to wonder why they’d ever need English in Japan, no matter the country, I imagine some entrepreneurs might question the need for cross cultural skills if their customer is simply their fellow town residents. Instead, I posit that on the contrary, cross cultural skills, including, but not limited to intercultural communication, are essential to entrepreneurs' ability to differentiate, evolve, and thrive.
What Cross Cultural Skills Actually Are
Despite the fact that I’ve already highlighted the area of intercultural communication as a cross cultural skill, I’ll admit that this form of communication is often wrongly used synonymously. Cross cultural competency extends to understanding, communicating with, and engaging with those in and from other cultures effectively. But what do we mean by ‘other cultures’? These do not simply refer to other national cultures, different from that of your own, but to any that you do not feel part of. This might consist of other generations, religions, sexual orientations, educations, languages, or norms. Therefore, when building cross cultural competencies, we must look beyond national cultures and look in, below, around, and above the various cultures we move between. An entrepreneur with a high level of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) knows how to smoothly navigate basic conversations, negotiations, and meetings with a matrix of people. Yes, it’s hard. Most of us can recall a time when it was more difficult for us to connect with someone different from us within our national culture but outside of one of our own personal cultures/identities. Still, we need to view cultures as fluid and intersectional, too.
The Communication Factor
OK, language skills can come in handy here. In my experience, speaking in a non-native language of mine at times leads me to thinking in that language, which does vary from thinking in English. I spot the connections between Italian language and cultures by thinking about the words I might use. Cross cultural communication also ties in “hidden meanings”, what certain gestures or head movements mean, and how business meetings should be arranged. In Japan, “yes” means “maybe”, “maybe” means “no”, and “we’ll see” means “not a chance.” It takes time to learn how to decipher the type of Indian head bobble for its meaning. If you are meeting with a group of stakeholders that spans multiple generations, you must consider what technology and what language can appeal to all of them, and simultaneously, what might turn even one group off. Understanding Hofstede’s cultural dimensions should be the entrepreneur's foundation, enabling them to think critically about, for example, individualistic versus collectivist cultures. Developing and honing cross cultural muscles will catalyze any entrepreneur to connect with anyone and propel their networking superpowers to close deals of any nature.
Traversing faith groups, community members, the exotic, etc - inherently experiencing the different - stimulates the brain. Researchers at Kaplan University recently found that that 20% of the population have a “variation on the DRD4 gene, and anyone with the 7R variant has a high predisposition to be ‘restless and curious’” - curious about something you do not know. Consequently, this research group also observed a correlation between this gene and more adventurous people, and those who seek out more ‘out of their comfort zone’ experiences. When you as an entrepreneur place yourself in a different environment and pursue difference in this way, you are pushed to understand it - to even see similarities, too - and to ask why. It’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur to make connections between existing ways of thinking and new ways of thinking. What are the patterns? What dots are you able to connect or create yourself? The more you practice, the more innate this becomes, sparking your creativity skills no matter who you are with or where you are.
I think anyone reading this will agree that an entrepreneur needs to know their customer, and know them well. This requires empathy, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes via customer journey mapping, interviews, or ethnography, among others. When trying to understand my parents’ Baby Boomer generation as a Millennial, I am continuously striving to think about their upbringings and life challenges in historical and familial context amidst American societal events. Looking at this big picture allows me to empathize with them. Similarly, understanding the rituals around Italian meals and the importance of sitting down and eating together helps me to empathize with Italians who cannot eat with loved ones nor enjoy an aperitivo happy hour Aperol spritz out with friends because restaurants and bars are closed during the pandemic. Understanding and communicating behaviors and practices that Bangladeshis incorporate due to cyclones and other extreme weather can, for instance, help inform a social entrepreneur about how to better develop sustainable solutions for them. Likewise, an entrepreneur working on solutions to help opioid addicts overcome addiction may also spend time with addicts to unearth more about what they specifically need and what obstacles they face. These are all examples of different types of cultures entrepreneurs must maneuver and get to know.
A mindful and self-aware entrepreneur knows how to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. This necessitates challenging assumptions about their given product or service, some of which may be deeply ingrained, to test whether the product or service is something the target customers need and are willing to pay for. A culturally intelligent entrepreneur frequently challenges their assumptions when it comes to analyzing similarities and differences across cultural groups in order to better and appropriately communicate with them. In Japan, a visitor may assume that a sushi delivery shop is outdated because it primarily uses a fax machine, ubiquitous in the Land of the Rising Sun. A savvy visitor will ask why and discover that it’s because the large majority of their older customers are most comfortable faxing their lunch orders. Cross cultural competencies make challenging these assumptions more instinctive and empower entrepreneurs to draw inferences that can serve as catalyzing ‘A-ha’ moments.
By developing cross cultural skills and by building their CQ, entrepreneurs can drive their venture in fun, innovative ways while connecting with more people, who may also be able to serve as allies, supporters, beta testers, or first-adopters - or point them in the direction of others who could be. In a world where timely iteration is key and human connection has become even more crucial, cross cultural competency is also a competitive advantage. Entrepreneurs need to have begun practicing these skills yesterday.