Cultural understanding almost always starts with the personal—which means it starts with you.

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Without a strong sense of who you are and how your own culture has influenced and shaped you, you are very unlikely to know how to respond to other cultures or have the confidence to modify your behaviour in the light of your discoveries.

We are all carrying around with us our own GHQ—a general headquarters that has early warning procedures, listening posts in other countries, advanced intelligence gathering, and direct channels to command-and-control decision making.

If you want to be an effective player in international or multicultural contexts, you need a highly developed personal GHQ of your own. The more information your GHQ processes as part of your natural curiosity, the more comparative intelligence you will gather and the sharper will be your response in new situations and to new challenges.


An effective GHQ begins with a strong sense of yourself and how your own culture has influenced the way you see things. Only then can you have the confidence to adapt to the people and customs and expectations of a different culture.

I have a colleague named James, who saw action in the British army in the jungles of Malaysia, and when he retired from the army he was military attaché in various embassies in Southeast Asia.

He now works as a procurement specialist for the defence industry. James is fluent in the Bahasa Malay language and has been honoured for his services by the Malaysian government with the title of Dato (the equivalent of ‘Sir’).

Every time I meet James, I am impressed by his knowledge, not only of Southeast Asia in general but also by his understanding of how business works in that part of the world.


He often mentions the importance of preserving ‘face’, or honour, in Asia and quotes as an example the British manufacturer who took months to come to a decision about a military contract with a certain Southeast Asian government.

Finally, the directors of the British company attended a banquet with the government ministers responsible, and during a speech at the banquet, they abruptly announced they would not be going forward with the contract.

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When the British executives left the banquet, the government minister came over to James and informed him that his government would never do business with that company again.

It was not the refusal of the contract that had upset him; it was the manner in which the news was conveyed. It had caused an unpardonable loss of face.


In societies that are more inclined towards the collective, where harmony, personal relationships, and respect are highly valued, such direct and ‘business only’ behaviour will not gain you many friends.

The British company would have been better advised to couch their non-participation in much more conciliatory language, to offer other benefits and ways in which to work, and to have chosen a private means of communicating this to the government rather than a public event.

In Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, if a personal relationship is broken, the entire business and cultural system on which it is based collapses.


That company may have developed advanced weaponry, but it lacked the GHQ capabilities—the interpersonal confidence and respect—to sell those weapons effectively.

These days both individuals and organisations have to develop their own GHQ, with at least some grasp of the different business, cultural, and legal systems that exist around the world.

In addition, you should have some knowledge of differences in interpersonal values such as religious beliefs, traditions, and social etiquette. You should get a feeling for how language plays a part both verbally and non-verbally in different cultures, and you should allow yourselves to be led and to have genuine curiosity.

Only then can you hope to be successful at leading across cultures.


This is an extract from my book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.

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