To work successfully in intercultural collaborations and to establish good working relations with the collaborative partner, it is essential to show a high degree of sensitivity to the context in which you are working. This refers to the cultural, social and situational context and requires sensitivity to the partner’s cultural values and practices, to role relations and role obligations in the partner’s culture, and to what constitutes adequate behaviour in the given situational circumstances.
Without such knowledge, faux pas are likely to occur, which could hinder the successful building of relationships. For example, it may well be that a junior member of staff is more proficient in English, and that it is tempting to ‘pitch’ one’s ideas predominantly to the person who is easiest to interact with. This could be offensive to more senior members of staff. Likewise, your ideas may very much appeal to a more junior member of the partner’s team. However, if you fail to understand who the person is who holds the decision-making power and if you fail to convince the person who holds that power of your ideas and strategies for the project, your efforts will be in vain and – even worse – you may give unintended offence by not recognising the senior person’s status and power.
It is therefore of great importance to be perceptive as to what the partner’s role, status and decision-making powers are. A good background knowledge of how role-relations function in the other culture can foster a better understanding of how decisions are made. While such perceptiveness, understanding and knowledge will help create better foundations for successful working relationships, it can also provide a strategic advantage for effectiveness in intercultural partnerships.
Case Study Example: Risking Offence
During the first year of the eChina-UK Programme, a significant ‘political’ issue was the choice of platform for the delivery of the online materials that the project teams were developing. Neither the Chinese Ministry of Education nor the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) wanted any of the universities to use their own platform, yet they could not agree on which platform(s) the projects should use. The decision was delayed and tensions were rising high. So the British sent a small team to explore the issue and to try to reach agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Education. In one of the meetings, which was very formal and involved a senior official from the Chinese Ministry, one of the British technical staff interrupted the senior Chinese official, saying ‘Can I ask a question?’ The official looked completely shocked and the British senior negotiator, horrified by this breach of Chinese etiquette, which clearly had had such a negative impact, simply replied “No, you cannot.”
The incident passed over without any repercussions. However, the lack of sensitivity that this subordinate member showed to the formality of the setting and the importance of respecting hierarchical relations in this type of business meeting, could easily have offended the Chinese official and thereby impacted negatively on subsequent negotiations if it had not been stopped in its tracks. (cf. Stylistic flexibility
Tip: At the beginning of a project, find out as much as you can about the professional context that you are working in. Pay particular attention to things such as organisational structures, hierarchical relations, and people’s roles and responsibilities.