Trade seminars can be a trap for the unwary exporter when prejudices can be presented in lieu of expertise.
Don’t turn cultural perspectives into blinkers
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Export oriented trade seminars can seem like a great solution. But be warned, while they provide access to the prior experience of others, they can also be a trap for the unwary when prejudices are presented in lieu of expertise.
Two seminars I attended recently in Melbourne reflected two different levels of consciousness of cultural factors which would affect the success of small business exploring the benefits (and hazards) of going global.
One seminar was targeted at people who were looking for business in China and Singapore and wanting to participate in Victorian trade fairs.
Attendees were advised by a lawyer (Aussie female) that cultural differences were important and that business representatives should be sensitive to our different humour, which sets us apart from our neighbours.
The next speaker (Asian male) went on to explain the difficulties of doing business in the region. He used an analogy that presented Japanese men having difficulty attracting the attention of young women and enticing them to their bed before marriage. Once the women were snared, according to him, “the Japanese were then screwed for a lifetime”.
He presented the Chinese as having no difficulty finding new partners every night of the week, but they would not remember them the following day.
Surprisingly there was no recorded dissent or protest from a predominantly male IT business audience, despite a distributed pamphlet that read “Who Needs Women?” pointing to declining numbers of women in the IT industry.
The other seminar I attended was at the other end of the sensitivity scale. Justin Howden presented to the International Women’s Federation of Commerce and Industry (IWFCI), a non-profit, non-government organisation hosted by the founder and chairperson Diana Abruzzi.
Justin, who is chairman of the Royal Exchange Club of Sydney with extensive experience in analysing markets, competitors and clients throughout Asia and the Middle East, drew attention to the dangers of cultural stereotypes, the value of family ties and spending time appreciating the vast differences that exist within and between Asian nations, and the very successful expansion of Australian entry by small and medium enterprises.
While the two sessions were in the same town, with inverse proportions of gender representation and different proportions of large and small business interests, the gap in perspectives about going global is disturbing.
We have seen a consistent decline in the proportion of primary and secondary schools including Asian languages as a second language, with both the Federal Government and Opposition seeming to insist that we need to return to the days of the White Australia policy with English language and “Aussie value” tests.
Going global is daunting and difficult enough without the added complication of trade advisers who share their own cultural perspectives as if they had a basis beyond their own prejudices.
Going global involves moving out of one’s comfort zone, recognising the value of differences and uncertainty, and an open mind that can convert problems into commercial opportunities.
Dr Colin Benjamin is chairman of independent Melbourne think-tank Marshall Place Associates and director general of Life. Be in it International.
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