Learning to avoid embarrassing or damaging gaffes has long been a must for most diplomats.
But in today’s globalised world, the ability to steer clear of cultural faux pas is also becoming an essential requirement for business and aid workers.
“In Korea you have to be able to hold your drink, in Italy being late is considered normal, and the Americans want to get to the point very quickly,” says Thomas Baumer, an expert on “intercultural competence”.
Baumer, who set up the Center of Intercultural Competence in Kloten near Zurich in May 2000, believes such a skill is key to success in business and politics.
A manager with the former national airline, Swissair, he has travelled to more than 65 countries and speaks half a dozen languages.
“Intercultural competence is based on three principles: understanding of other people’s ways of thinking, sensitivity and self-consciousness,” he told swissinfo.
Dos and don’ts
Sound ethical values and the ability to build trust are the main pillars for successful business deals, suggests Baumer.
“Honesty and respect are fundamental, and it is very helpful to know taboo subjects,” he adds.
“It is often not advisable to talk about politics or religion. But in southern [European] countries like Spain and Italy, you are much better off talking about football at the start of a business meeting.”
According to Baumer, women still face additional hurdles when doing business in Arab countries, and he recommends taking along at least one male colleague to a meeting.
And the importance of dress codes and other “dos and don’ts” should never be underestimated.
“It’s one of the biggest insults in an Arab country to point the soles of your shoes at the person you’re talking to when sitting on the floor, as is customary.”
Baumer says intercultural competence – the ability to communicate with people from other cultures – is much more than simply a buzzword.
“It isn’t only important in the business world and for politicians, but also for doctors, lawyers or psychologists who deal with people from other cultural backgrounds.”
Baumer points out that the business world has already acknowledged the importance of intercultural competence when it comes to international trade deals.
He says the same skills, which are taught at universities, technical colleges and by private consultants, are also useful for personnel managers of companies which employ many foreigners, especially in Switzerland.
One in four workers in Switzerland has a foreign passport, according to latest statistics.
The old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a principle which also applies to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
“Everyone who works in the field of development aid has to know the rules of successful communication with people from other cultures,” says Barbara Affolter, a spokeswoman for SDC.
The government agency is supporting a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) programme, which aims to promote cultural understanding in development activities.
Strict rules already guide politicians through state visits, while international regulations are in place to ensure that diplomats don’t put their foot in it.
“Rules and regulations are a great advantage,” says Baumer. “Their absence makes everything much more complicated.”
swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein
The non-governmental CICB was founded by Thomas Baumer in 2000.
Baumer, a trained economist, worked as a manager for the former national airline, Swissair, until 1999.
In 2001 he wrote the “Intercultural Competence Handbook” (in German).
Intercultural competence is the ability to successfully communicate with people from other cultures.
It is essential for contacts in the business world and in international organisations.
CICB, based in Kloten near Zurich, is one of several institutions in Switzerland teaching intercultural competence.