Cross-cultural interactions — the good, the bad… and a couple of blunders!

Even countries that we might think of as culturally quite similar can still have significant differences in their cultural norms. Back in the early 2000s, I was in Finland attending a week of project meetings with Nokia. The project team comprised a range of Western nationalities: mostly Finns, an Icelander, some Swedes, a couple of Brits and me — a pakeha kiwi. At the end of the last day the group celebrated by piling into Nokia’s corporate sauna. To the more Anglo among us, the idea of sweating naked with one’s newly-met colleagues presented definite cultural challenges, but to the Scandinavians it was as ordinary as going to the pub!

These days I wrestle with cultural differences mainly on the translation/localisation front. In marketing, for example, it’s so important to adapt your content to the local culture. It’s expensive to maintain different collateral for each market, but it’s essential. For example, in my organisation a ‘customer success’ story that involved a cinema in Colorado (where marijuana is legal) playfully alluded to special weed-friendly events where movie-goers could indulge themselves during the intermission. In a New Zealand context, the story is amusing and irreverent (which matched the product’s branding). In a Chinese context however, where marijuana is strictly illegal (and penalties harshly enforced), the story was totally inappropriate. In the Chinese version of the website, the story had to be replaced.

I think more broadly there can be a tension between a multinational’s head office, with its focus on standardisation and global branding, and its local subsidiaries who struggle with issues unique to their particular market and culture. Management structures need to balance those interests, with local representatives having input into the global strategies decided at head office.

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