THE BLOG

Avoiding Cultural Chalk and Cheese in the World of Business

05/03/2013 08:38 GMT | Updated 04/05/2013 10:12 BST

If an international life has taught me anything it's that people are more different than the same. It's true at home, abroad, in business, in government and in NGOs. If you've ever been the only native speaker of English in a room or found your cultural references missing the mark, you'll know how uncomfortable those differences can become.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that a new piece of research by the British Council, Ipsos and management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton shows that not only do employers around the world value the ability to work with people from other cultures as highly as they value formal qualifications - but they also say a lack of these skills in the workforce can open them up to serious risks including losing clients.

In organisations like the British Council we take this for granted - but we shouldn't. Because there are still plenty of places in the world where English isn't understood. And even when it is, nuances and cultural references can go seriously amiss.

In my work, that's lost friends and opportunities for the UK. In business, it's lost productivity, clients and customers. Getting the culture right is often the difference between chalking up success or cheesing people off.

For anyone determined to perpetuate the myth that we don't need to learn foreign languages in the UK because 'everyone speaks English anyway', there's a clear wake-up call in this new research. Less than a quarter of managers in China and well under half in Brazil say their businesses use English on a daily basis.

I vividly remember over 20 years ago listening to my English boss giving a lecture on Total Quality Management (which dates it) using acetates (which dates it even more) to a roomful of Hong Kong Chinese purchasing managers. His array of UK-specific anecdotes and increasingly desperate puns was met with blank faces until at least three of the audience actually fell asleep.

English - spoken dogmatically and loudly - is as boring to a Cantonese ear as a set of badly played bagpipes. And cultural references - unlike Heineken - often don't 'refresh' beyond their home markets.

There are universal languages: sport, art, music, film, science - and business - which can transcend linguistic hurdles. I remember a bravura demonstration by the driver of 'que parada' ('what a save') nearly barrelling us off the road en route to a partner meeting in Colombia. But the whole car was enthused - if terrified. And money talks worldwide, so if there's business to be done, people will usually find a way - but not always.

Our research clearly shows that English alone is not enough and cultural awareness is also key in working well and doing the business in important emerging markets in South East, Asia, China, Brazil and more.

Only the Americans - less than a quarter of whom say they regularly work with clients overseas - have a home market big enough to speak English and work to US norms. Probably a good job, given the CEO of Titan International's recent remarks about French workers.

The rest of us need to recognise our cultural biases and leave the clichés at home. Our research shows we're pretty good at this in the UK. But when it comes to languages we could do with getting a lot better.