It was almost one year ago when I received an urgent email from an old friend in America. Covid-19 had already been spreading in Asia for months, but now it started emerging in Western Countries. It had reached the United States. People quickly realized there weren’t enough PPE supplies in the country to protect themselves or to treat others.
“James, do you have any contacts in Asia for PPE equipment?” my friend pointedly asked me. I didn’t know at the time, but this would be the first of many inquiries made to me (primarily because of my background in healthcare and where I was currently situated.)
I received emails from friends, former business associates and strangers in America, Europe and even Africa. Most of the requests came from individuals or groups with very little experience in dealing with Asia. They were not professional importers, and had limited practice on international trade. Many of their assumptions and expectations were quite unrealistic, and simply put, they didn’t know where to begin.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This might be an overused English phrase, but never has one been more appropriate than in this situation. The lack of preparedness for such a catastrophe was not just an issue internally for local governments, hospitals and national emergency responders, but also for how groups were communicating information and needs beyond their borders. Cross-cultural communications was tested on a new level and we quickly found out it was failing miserably.
Aside from the scientific community, most networks that needed PPE supplies or information weren’t prepared on how to properly communicate with most Asian suppliers. Too many assumptions were made and not enough questions were being asked. And because of this, it not only exposed the massive lack of experience in the world in regards to cross-cultural communications, it also demonstrated again how much time and money is lost on foreign investment in other countries along with some international trade. It doesn’t matter if you are a small-size supplier or wholesaler, or a top 500 corporation, having strong and current cross-cultural communications is a critical piece in conducting business efficiently.
So what are some of the harsh lessons learned that organizations and people can improve upon in the near future? I think it’s fair to say that in talking to others in my field there are 3 key take-aways:
- Relationships need time to develop and there is no better time than the present. People should work to cultivate relationships internationally either directly, or indirectly through third party groups. Understanding, and being familiar with both sides is very important (especially in Asian cultures). This will help greatly when emergencies arise and help better understand expectations (product, service, or delivery needs).
- Don’t assume that a common language means common values and habits. So you have a good interpreter, or perhaps your trade partners speak the same language. However, just because the world is more globalized doesn’t mean there are no cultural differences. When interacting with colleagues or customers with a different origin or cultural background you’ll need to think of any possible cultural differences that can influence your communication.
- Strengthening your empathy skills. Empathetic people get along well with people from very different backgrounds and cultures, and can express their ideas in ways the other person will understand. It is extremely useful in urgent situations and it requires greater listening and understanding. This is an area that many Asian businesses struggle with, however, they are beginning to understand the importance of it. Empathetic values show you are considering not just business objectives but the needs and desires of clients.
- We shouldn’t let this time pass without reflecting on how all groups involved in international business can improve their cross-cultural communications. The winners in improved cross-cultural communications are not just businesses and customers, but also the people we are trying to help.
– Words by James Raussen
James Raussen is Managing Director of Vietnam Global Connect, based in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam. He has lived and worked in SE Asia and Asia for nearly 5 years.