Are we culturally predestined in business?

What does it take to succeed in China? Why do foreign companies struggle in the US? What does Brexit mean for UK exports? The answers to these fundamental questions for business growth may be embedded in our 'psychological genes'

‘Globalisation’ was the buzzword of the noughties with reason. The exponential growth of world economies like China and India opened up borders like never before.

We are now in a time where we can import and export goods, services, talents, skills, and experiences.

However, sobering realities of war, acts of terror, and even to an extent the Brexit vote suggest that we are deeply divided in our attitudes towards, and understanding of, other countries, cultures and religions.

A cultural quotient check

According to business psychologist Gurnek Bains, cultural intelligence or CQ, is the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures. Bains believes that distinct societal traits have developed over time in the evolution of various cultures, with the ebb and flow of concepts of nationhood and nationality.

In his new book, Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalisation, Bains explores how different cultures view the world, and what this means for business communication.

Understandably, insights into how foreign markets operate comes with obvious economic benefits, but based on neuroscience, behavioural genetics, psychology and history, we are almost fated to misunderstand people from other cultures.

The need for honing CQ is emerging as a priority for businesses looking to expand beyond borders.

By understanding cultural DNA, however, global-facing companies and professionals can anticipate and avoid certain common problems and unintended faux pas, and learn the ‘soft skills’ necessary to seal deals, integrate staff and establish new outposts across the world.

Know your audience: lessons from eBay in China

E-commerce giant eBay famously failed to crack the world’s biggest economy because it literally transposed the American model to the Chinese market.

While in the US, consumers rely on user reviews to form opinions, in China, this is taken to another level.

Shopping is a social and personal experience, and Chinese consumers tend to rely on communicating directly with vendors, even haggling over prices.

China needed an e-commerce platform that made online shopping feel more like real shopping, which eBay didn’t take into account.

Local competitor Taobao won the market over mainly because it incorporated a chat feature that allowed customers to talk to shopkeepers.


An Arab, an Indian and a Brit walk into a bar…

Stereotyping has received a lot of flack lately, seen now as a synonym for prejudice. But Bains believes there a “kernel of truth” to most stereotypes.

After all, stereotypes are common cultural representations that help us understand the world around us. Prejudice, on the other hand, is an inaccurate and inflexible generalisation that is based on unfounded judgements.

An aptitude for understanding why other cultures are the way they are, and how they are influencing global affairs has long been underestimated, according to Bains.

It is only by getting under their skin that common intercultural dilemmas and barriers can be resolved, stereotypes taken to task and better, more harmonious relationships forged, he asserts.

Don’t underestimate cultural sensitivities: lessons from Qiaobi

In May, a Chinese detergent company ad leaked online and went viral for the wrong reasons. Qiaobi’s detergent commercial showed a man of African origin being “laundered” into a fair-skinned Chinese man, in what most of the world considered racist and offensive.

Even though the brand only serves China’s domestic market, the commercial made waves online, stressing how everything is global on the internet.

To make matters worse, Qiaobi’s marketing team defended its racist ad in its half-hearted apology:

“We meant nothing but to promote the product, and we had never thought about the issue of racism,” a spokesman for the Leishang cosmetics company, which produces the detergent, told China’s Global Times.

“The foreign media might be too sensitive about the ad,” he added.

While the company clearly did not set out to offend a whole race of people, this gaff shows that insular companies used to doing business with a standard demographic may underestimate culture sensitivities of a global audience.

The ad had virtually no impact in its main market, racking up barely 2,000 views in China, suggesting that it actually may not be considered offensive by the general public.

Chances are Qiaobi had no idea their campaign would be viewed by anyone outside China, for one, or that it was racist.

Educated generalisations could help in business

Based on psychology, neuroscience, and history, in addition to insight from a database of 30,000 business leaders, Bains outlines eight key global cultures, including the United States, China, India, and the UK.

For each, he explains the drivers that have shaped their predominant mien over thousands of years. Apparently this psychological DNA is expressed in everything from the ethos of political and financial institutions to the way businesses are conducted in and beyond their borders.

For example, according to Bains’ research, the pilgrim forefathers of present day America have left their mental stamp on successive generations, which suggests the optimism of ‘yankee ingenuity’ associated with US start-ups.

Another piece of insight from Bains suggests that centuries of living in a desert environment, where survival was a daily struggle, has heavily influenced the attitudes of the various cultures in the Middle East and Saharan Africa.

His study of the British, meanwhile, reveals an island nation heavily influenced by its geographic isolation and genetic ancestry to become fiercely independent in temperament.

According to Bains, this could help explain why other EU members may have taken better to the concept of a super-state than the UK.

Branding is everything: lessons from Walmart in Japan

Hugely successful American superstore, WalMart attempted to enter the Japanese market by buying a share in the Seiyu company. Walmart’s attempt to replicate it’s popular marketing strategies in Japan failed primarily because branding in the US and branding in Japan are two wildly different beasts.

Walmart’s famous “Every Day Low Prices” campaign didn’t work in Japan because customers equate low prices with cheap quality.

Competitive edge

Companies that are successfully able to communicate cross-culturally have a competitive advantage because they can devote more time and resources to doing business and building customer relationships, rather than solving internal communication issues.

As for Bain’s theory, cultural DNA may help UK businesses crack why China has become a world leader in manufacturing while India has excelled in the IT sector, and why some cultures may be more pre-disposed to burn out economically in the future than others. Figuring this out could be the leg-up the UK needs post-Brexit.

See also: 10 of the most cringe-worthy cultural mistakes to avoid overseas

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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