Crossing cultural borders is critical

By Polly Mitchell-Guthrie

People ask me how the business world is different than the nonprofit world.

My standard answer is that it is similar in some ways and different in others.

People are people and, in most ways, they aren’t all that different just because of who pays their salaries.

But too often I’ve seen assumptions made that impede communication when people ascribe their own values to the words they hear.

As my work responsibilities became global, my sensitivity to the meaning behind words heightened.

When communicating across language and culture, I often wonder if we’ve heard each other correctly or missed the meaning behind words.

Once I told my Brazilian colleague, Andrea, about a conversation with a Brazilian customer’s wife who had invited me to stay with her in Brazil to practice Portuguese.

I asked Andrea if I risked offending the customer if I didn’t call his wife during my next visit, since this woman had adamantly reiterated the invitation multiple times and given me all her contact details.

“We Brazilians are very enthusiastic,” Andrea said, but she explained that this woman would be surprised if I called.

When I know a language barrier exists I pay extra attention to the words.

But I’ve come to believe, as explorer Freya Stark did, that “our own habitual values” often get in the way of understanding mere words.

Now that I am in the business world, I regularly hear inappropriate assumptions made about other sectors – nonprofits, government or the military — and have been on the receiving end of their own assumptions about our world.

Business metrics are moving into the public and nonprofit sectors, and technology has made crossing borders easier, cheaper and faster than ever.

All of these factors mean we will be confronted with learning new languages in the years to come.

Taking time to learn the values behind those languages will increase understanding and help us accomplish common goals together more effectively.

Polly Mitchell-Guthrie is director the SAS Academic Program in Cary, N.C., and was a William C. Friday fellows at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C. in 1995-97.

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