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What living in Saudi Arabia and Grand Rapids have in common

davidlivermore | May 24th, 2012 6 Comments

Last week I was in Saudi Arabia. I was talking with a British executive living there with his family. He said to me, “We love Jeddah. But I don’t know how long we’re going to last here. My wife and daughters can’t leave the compound without me. We aren’t able to worship as we’d like. And my wife and I can’t even celebrate our anniversary with a glass of wine.”

This week I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I currently live. Yesterday I was talking with an Indian man who recently moved his family here from London. He said, “It’s a beautiful area. But every week someone tells my kids at school that they’re praying for us to become Christians. I don’t know how long I can ask my kids to endure being here.”

There’s so much to unpack with each one of these conversations—not the least of which are the faith-related issues and questions. Ironically, part of my reason for being in Saudi Arabia multiple times in recent weeks was to talk with Saudi government leaders about how they can better attract and retain foreign talent. And there’s plenty we need to think about in Grand Rapids about how to be more hospitable toward diverse people. Being hospitable (and culturally intelligent) doesn’t mean we can’t remain true to any values or convictions.

But my primary thinking about this today is actually the opportunities that these kinds of environments present for the “outsiders” living there. I say this a bit sheepishly as a white male living a relatively privileged life in Midwest USA. But my response to both of these men was to consider the opportunities their families have as minorities in these cultures. They’re getting hands-on learning, day in and day out, on what it means to adjust and adapt to another culture while still remaining true to yourself.

One of the interesting findings from our research on cultural intelligence is that cross-cultural experiences have less impact upon minority members of a culture than they do on majority members. This is primarily because those who are not part of the dominant culture where they live are continually learning to adjust and navigate a world that is somewhat foreign. So it’s not as noteworthy for them to experience that again on a trip.

There’s plenty that needs to be said about the challenges of life as a minority—and I devote a lot of my speaking and writing toward this. And of course there’s plenty of need for everyone, whatever your place in a culture, to develop and build cultural intelligence.

But for today—I encourage those who are not “insiders” with the culture where you live or work—to embrace the opportunities it gives you (and your kids!) on a daily basis to see the world differently.

No matter how hard we try to get the majority culture to change, the minorities will almost always be expected to adjust and adapt. I’m not going to give up calling the masses to open themselves up to the “foreigners” in their midst. But I’m also very conscious that the “foreigners” will have a leg up on the rest of us for being able to learn, develop, and improve their cultural intelligence.

Religion and international business

davidlivermore | September 24th, 2009 No Comments


This morning’s Singapore Straits Times has an interesting article about an Asia-Europe Interfaith dialogue that just took place in Korea. My life has me moving back and forth between the religious world and the business context and I often grieve that there isn’t greater conversation occurring between leaders working in each context. Some business leaders shrug off religious difference as irrelevant to how they work internationally but nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, one American business opened their Thailand office one flight above a Buddha statue. Only after several months of virtually no business did they learn that no one was coming to the office because the business violated a sacred rule: Never put yourself above Buddha, literally! After moving to a new location, business took off. Elsewhere, a Japanese multinational corporation was caught off guard by the degree to which religious beliefs affected their global expansion. The company decided to build a factory on a piece of land in rural Malaysia that was formerly a burial ground of the aboriginal people who had lived in the region. After building the factory, mass hysteria resulted among the factory workers of Malay origin. Many employees claimed they were inflicted with spirit possession. Putting the factory on former burial grounds was believed to have disturbed the earth and stirred the spirits that then swarmed the factory premises.

We can’t underestimate the powerful role of religious beliefs and practices in how we work in different places. For Western leaders, who are often perceived to be Christian even if they aren’t, a respectful conversation about some of the other great religions of the world will demonstrate significant respect when interacting with leaders from other parts of the world. You need not abandon your own religious convictions to convey honor and appreciation for the views and practices of others. This is a huge point to understand about cultural intelligence. We aren’t interested in abandoning all our convictions, values and assumptions. Instead, we’re seeking to understand and respect the beliefs and priorities of others.

• Be respectful about how you discuss your religious beliefs and learn what might be most likely to offend someone in light of their religious beliefs. Be alert to the most potentially offensive things that could be done in regard to a culture’s religious beliefs and seek to avoid those practices.

• Become a student of how religious values and supernatural beliefs affect the financial, management, and marketing decisions made by organization in a particular culture.

• Find out the key religious dates. Avoid opening a new business in China during the Festival of the Dead or on Deepvali in India. Just as we wouldn’t think of planning a key business meeting during Christmas in the Western world, learn what religious holidays to avoid in other locations.

[Portions excerpted from Leading with Cultural Intelligence, pages 83-84]