Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Language and Cultural Barrier - Raise the stakes

As I've probably mentioned before, my little company doesn't really have that many foreigners in the office and I'm the only one who works in a customer facing function and actually involved with the products and services that we try to sell to the unsuspecting Japanese health care caregivers. My colleagues in the sales and marketing functions also (for the most part) have very limited capabilities when it comes to English.

This means that there are considerable language and cultural barriers firmly set in place. I would say that for the most part, the barriers are probably comparable to the great wall of China and could be seen on satellite images. Oftentimes I'm called in to smooth things out, but I can't be everywhere at once and deal with everything that's going on in the company, so a lot of the time I need to leave people to fend for themselves as best as they can when the head office tries to intervene in the local business. For most of the people, the barrier is there but not as a part of any deliberate efforts; most of the people actually would like to communicate more and better, but just don't have the capabilities to do so.

However, in a recent case, when one of the product managers who neither speaks much English, nor is particularly interested in having his game disturbed by some nosy head office person who might mess up some nice scam he has going on, the barrier is not only encouraged, it is also actively enforced to try and prevent any contact. In this recent example, things escalated since one of the global product managers had firmly set his sight on breaking through the barriers by any means possible. This including trying to call directly to our guy in the Japan office (which further fuels the fire since he is severely afraid of having to communicate directly in English due to his limited language and his fear of accidentally agreeing to something that he absolutely don't want to do), but he managed to dodge most of that by either asking the secretary to say that he was out of the office or claiming to not have time to talk since he had to "rush out to meet a VIP customer for something very important". Things further escalated when I started to get pulled into the whole thing through requests to help set up a meeting (something I initially also managed to dodge since it wasn't my area of responsibility).

The language and cultural barrier had been broken though and the full scale invasion attempt had resulted in an all out language and cultural war. However, recently the situation has calmed down a bit and I have now been drafted in to try and broke peace in three party talks. The situation can now probably most accurately be called a "language and cultural de-militarized zone", talks are ongoing but very little progress is made.

(As a side-note, it should be mentioned that Cpt. Awkward on the other hand has a Sunshine policy towards foreign contact and gladly invites people over to his side of the border. Unfortunately most people find themselves trapped in wonderland, desperately chasing the white rabbit to try and figure out what's actually going on in his scary, but wonderful magical land!)

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