Using cultural anthropologists in business deals

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Using cultural anthropologists in business deals

Many years ago this editor’s father, Yellow Fox, was involved in setting up a potential business arrangement with the Navajo. Recognizing that the Navajo were different form the Hopi, he wanted to eliminate some of the problems that might occur because of either cultural misunderstandings or cultural misperceptions. He therefore hired a cultural anthropologist from NYU, who specialized in the Navajo, to be on the team.

Now, if there are potential cultural differences that have to be taken into account when dealing with the Navajo, a quintessentially American group, imagine what it is like for an American company dealing with people outside of the United States! Because of this early experience, we ourselves often recommend that a cultural anthropologist be brought in as part of the team in any major business transaction in a foreign country. The truth is that we are frequently in places where the people look like us, seem to behave like us, but aren’t, by even the wildest stretch of the imagination, actually like us. The thinking is different, the expectations are different, the behavior is different, and the more involved we are, the more glaring these differences become. Also, the more we as foreigners insist upon dealing from our cultural background and not at least recognizing the differences, we set ourselves up for failure to those who are sensitive and inclusive.

When you are dealing with clearly different cultures, the problems are even greater. When the people with whom you are dealing don’t look like you, don’t speak your language, and don’t even eat the same food, it is a safe guess that the patterns of behavior and the thought processes are very different. In some cases the differences are easily understood. One soon learns that when meeting with the Japanese the word “yes” might mean, “Yes, we hear you,” rather than “Yes, we agree.” It is because of this that in those areas where we work, we have people on the ground who speak the language, understand the culture, and know the meaning of what people say.

If you are doing business somewhere new, and where there is a cultural difference, you need to be sure that you are being given a clear interpretation of what is actually happening. This might not be necessary if you are an American company dealing with Canada [keeping Quebec in mind], but it certainly becomes critical when you move outside of Western Europe.

In some cases merely dealing with people who have experience in the area is enough. In other cases that is not enough. If you are making a capital investment in any foreign location where the labor or raw materials are cheap enough to make it worthwhile, it is a safe guess that at some point a cultural anthropologist should be making an appearance on your team.

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