LeChâtlier’s Passport: Working Across Cultures

Recently at a dinner in a “small” Chinese town of just under three million people, I sat around a table with colleagues representing seven countries, speaking Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Korean, Flemish, German, Russian, and Dutch. Given that a coworker and I were born and bred well south of the Mason-Dixon Line, arguably the two of us also spoke “Southern.”

This same group was composed of the following academic backgrounds: mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, one doctorate in materials science, one doctorate in physical chemistry.

These diverse gatherings, once strictly the domain of G20 Summits, professional society annual meetings, or academic conferences, are now more and more commonplace: there we were in our cultural Petri dish that combined scientific knowledge diversity with cultural diversity.

So how to handle developing these working relationships when clients, business partners, vendors, and contractors increasingly mingle across such diverse Venn diagrams of backgrounds?

We turn, of course, to philosophy.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the origins, acquisition, and development of knowledge. The interactions between the knowledge of culture and the knowledge of technology have become the new reactants in the laboratory of the modern global marketplace.

Thermodynamics, through the eyes of the French chemist Henry Louis LeChâtlier, taught us that when we have two separate substances dosed at high concentrations into the same system, the substances will naturally flow from being in a state of localized high concentrations to dispersed lower concentrations, both substances eventually mixing or reacting altogether until the system itself is in long-term equilibrium. As such, different sources of knowledge will rarely have the opportunity to react and create new disciplines and methodologies if left isolated. Exposure to cultural practices and behaviors different from one’s own is the ultimate way of paving an exciting, new syncretic future of knowledge growth, fostering innovation in ways that isolated thought could never bring forth.

So what would the Fodor’s travel guide to this cultural expanse look like? Perhaps in the “How to Get There” section we might see the following sub-headings as trails leading us to an epistemological hybridization of cultural growth.

Translation is not Always Interpretation
When one deals in collaborative work between different cultural backgrounds, language is one of the more obvious differences that contribute to knowledge building.

The caveat is that there is a distinctive difference between translation and interpretation. For technical projects that require a higher level of technological collaboration, this difference is manifested in the ability to translate literally word for word versus conveying the meaning behind those words. This can make critical differences in the understanding of all parties involved, that everyone leaves the table with the same understanding. In the context of agreeing to a contract or the terms of a project, striving toward comprehension should always trump the half-way house of mere vocabulary exchange.

Write it Down
English speakers have the privilege of being a bit spoiled when it comes to doing business abroad (although at the rate things are going, I wouldn’t put that Mandarin Chinese edition of Rosetta Stone on eBay quite yet).

Most countries, particularly in Asia, are built with the training infrastructure to conduct business in English. One trend is that regardless of the country, even in places where speaking English may be weaker, reading and writing English is very proficient.

When in doubt, summon up your dry erase board skills and write it down in your international meetings. If that is not possible, follow up your meeting or teleconference with a clear email or memo. Feel comfortable in requesting the same from your partners.

There’s No Such Thing as Being Too Specific
No dead horses to be beaten here. Err on the side of thoroughness, albeit tinged with precision. Never assume, “Oh surely, they get it.” It’s not a function of any individual’s capability but the challenges that the very act of translation inherently brings. When in doubt, be overly specific and request the same of your counterparts.

Cultural Convergence
What can we learn from our past that can inform our present? What can we learn from the past of one culture and how can it influence the present of another culture? Cultural convergence is the application of business knowledge across different cultural backdrops, taking advantage of differences in technology, customs, and practices, and redeploying such differences in non-traditional contexts. Like LeChâtlier, allowing this equilibrium to occur is to sow the fertile landscape of creativity, innovation, and progress.

The benefit here is to remember that the modern developing countries are at different stages of each other’s economic continuum. Seeing where Japan began after World War II and where it is now, China knows which roads to avoid and which roads to pursue. South Korea might be standing just right of the midpoint. Look further back along the timeline and the countries of Southeast Asia are waiting in the queue. It’s like being able to look into the future and edit other countries’ mistakes in order to tailor them to your country’s own economic benefit. Much of what the United States learned in the industrialization of the country during the 1940s is being reapplied in a more streamlined form in other countries where industrialization is just beginning to gain firmer footing. In this way, guided knowledge becomes the sharpest chisel for global growth and development.

Published August 11, 2010 by Austin Lin

Filed under: travel, international, career development,

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