Uncovering the Hidden Depths of Cultural Differences in Business: A Fish Out of Water’s Perspective

The metaphor of a fish out of water is often used to describe a feeling of discomfort or unfamiliarity in a new environment. However, when it comes to international business and cultural differences, this metaphor should be seen in a positive light. When it comes to cultural differences in business, a fish out of water’s perspective should be welcomed.

A Clear Sense of Self

Scientific research has shown, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review called “How Living Abroad Create a Clearer Sense of Self”, that living abroad can increase self-discerning reflection, which can lead to three benefits: increased creativity, reduced group bias, and career success. I recently spoke at an event at a recruitment company called YER on behalf of Culture Matters to talk about cultural differences in business. Recruitment companies like YER, which recruit in the US for European companies, understand this concept and use European recruiters who live in the US. This could be a Belgian recruiter living in Atlanta recruiting for a US operation of a Belgian company. Clearly, this recruiter has insight into both cultures and can navigate the employment market quite well, as they can bridge the cultural gap between their European clients and the US market. It provides them with a competitive advantage and increases the chances of success for their clients. The Harvard Business Review article not only refers to the three earlier-mentioned benefits but also points out that depth is more important than breadth. A longer stay delivers more benefits than shorter visits to multiple places. A short stay in a foreign country, such as a vacation or a business trip, is not the same as spending many months or even years in another culture. In fact, a short stay can lead to culture shock which may cause “the traveler” to return home through a revolving door full of bias.

The Revolving Door Syndrome

It is that revolving door that seems to dominate at companies of all sizes when exploring new and foreign markets: “I have been to the US a couple of times and spoke with potential customers. They love my products!” It gives the false impression that a few visits create a good understanding of the culture and market potential. I am afraid that The Dunning-Kruger Effect is at play, which occurs when a lack of knowledge and skills cause an overestimation of the actual competence. Many companies nowadays have a diverse workforce with employees of many different nationalities. These companies can benefit by making use of their employees’ cultural understanding and experience to better understand foreign markets. However, it is even more important that executives and decision-makers realize that they may not be that culturally competent and not always have a clear view on cultural differences in business. That is of course not an easy task. Recruiting company YER has a workforce that is built on “a clearer sense of self.” Still, the recruiters need to deal with clients that may not be that culturally competent and don’t realize it. How some employees wish to pull their boss out of the fishbowl. Indeed, to understand other cultures, one needs to understand one’s own first.

A Fish Out of Water’s Perspective

Of course, I wouldn’t write this article if I didn’t consider myself a fish out of the water. As a Dutchman, I lived in nine countries across Europe, and Latin America, and I currently reside in Atlanta in the US. My wife is from Venezuela and my three daughters were born in three different countries. As a result, I am very aware of my “Dutchness”, and I am aware of the dynamics of the American culture. That’s not to say I still stumble over differences occasionally, but I believe that I can pinpoint and name the obstacle that made me stumble over cultural differences in business. Often, companies that expand internationally first have to fail and stumble over cultural differences and then be given the gift of a fish out of water’s perceptive. It is of course better to become culturally competent before international expansion and use all the available resources, of which there are plenty. It requires awareness that cultural differences are of influence and that awareness has to start with a clear sense of self. For a fish to swim in the ocean and survive, it may have to first realize it was in a bowl.


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About Peter van der Lende

Peter van der Lende International business development

Peter has joined forces with Culture Matters.

Because he has years and years of international business development experience joining forces therefore only seemed logical.

Being born and raised in the Netherlands, he has lived in more than 9 countries of which most were in Latin America.

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