I have a Czech friend in London who works for a major bank, which recently sent him to Melbourne with a one-day stopover in Singapore for client meetings.
The stopover was followed by a non-stop flight to Melbourne where he spent half a day at meetings and then flew back to London via Dubai the same evening. I think he spent something like 48 hours or more in the air and managed three or four business meetings.
He was stressed. He’s only about 28 and every time I meet him at the gym he’s stressed, usually from flying somewhere or other and dealing with different cultures and people of different backgrounds. They’re part of his portfolio. They’re his responsibility.
However, what impresses me always about Jan is his buoyancy. The stress of business travel and strange hotels never seems to get him down. He’s always smiling and laughing, even after 48 hours in the air!
HOW TO HANDLE STRESS
He’s married to Gracie, an Indonesian, and whenever they have free time they travel (again) to his family in the Czech Republic or her family in the Philippines, or to one of their favourite Asian countries like Malaysia.
He’s always talking about the Asian foods he adores, or how he and Gracie miss their adventures in Denpasar or Chiang Mai or Shanghai. In other words, he’s a cross-cultural global citizen with high cultural intelligence (CQ).
Jan and Gracie don’t mind discomfort at all, whether it’s physical or emotional. They don’t mind being jolted out of their usual mind-set and way of doing things. In fact, they welcome cross-cultural challenges. I don’t think Jan knows every single aspect of etiquette when he goes to those many different countries he has to visit, but he always seems to fit in.
ESCAPING THE GHETTO
Business travellers like Jan, who take pleasure from exercising their CQ, are much less likely to suffer from burnout and mental exhaustion than those who remain fiercely protected and closed off in their familiar world: Western-style hotel, business district, ‘international’ restaurants and bars.
The same applies to expatriate managers who spend all their time in their sanitised office space, residential areas for foreigners and Western-style entertainment districts where the clubs are filled with many more expatriates than locals.
In my experience in an international bank in Hong Kong, the really successful and fulfilled expatriates were the ones who respected the Chinese and others from different ethnic backgrounds, worked collaboratively with them, maybe spoke some phrases of Cantonese and made some effort to socialize or even participate in family gatherings, birthdays or festivals with the local Chinese in their team.
They always seemed to be far happier than the expatriates – and there were a considerable number of them – who stuck to their own kind, their own ways, and rarely mingled.
THE KARAOKE TEST
I call it my Karaoke Test. If I could imagine going out after dinner with a group of local professionals and joining in with them at a Karaoke bar, I knew I could succeed.
You don’t have to get hopelessly drunk, although it sometimes seemed that some Chinese, Japanese or Korean groups (and Westerners) specialised in this, but you have to be willing to sing at least one, preferably two or three songs, and obviously enjoy it, to be accepted.
If you can hum along with a local song, and even attempt a few phrases in Chinese or Japanese or Korean from reading and singing the sub-titles, so much the better. Then you were a real local!
DON’T CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA
I never quite understood the passion with which my hosts or clients or professional colleagues embraced these beer- or saké-fuelled evenings after dinner (or sometimes during dinner in China). But I sure as hell did it.
After a few outings, I became reasonably proficient in Don’t Cry For Me Argentina or New York, New York, or My Way, and could belt it out with the best of them. I lost count of the number of good business deals or relationships that came about because of those evenings.
Of course, business leaders and CEOs might have to find more elegant ways to socialize with their local clients and customers than singing karaoke – although in China and Japan the practice seems to go almost to the top, even in local government and government circles.
However, what I call the Karaoke Test remains the same for all cultures. If you can socialize successfully, show respect and enjoy local traditions and customs, you will be far happier and have greater job satisfaction than people of lower CQ who cut them selves off or fail to enjoy the challenge.
This is an extract from my book, Bamboo Strong: Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.
To find out more about using cultural intelligence to succeed in global business, download How CQ Can Help You or email firstname.lastname@example.org