In a recent documentary, Newt Gingrich states that American children are falling behind many other nations’ children in respect of their academic prowess.  He argues that they compare most unfavourably with Chinese and Indian children.  To add weight to this argument, a recent McKinsey report emphasises that the lagging performance of America’s school pupils, particularly its poor and minority children, is wreaking more devastation on the economy than the current credit crunch and recession.  American children, it seesms, are ill-equipped to compete and perform poorly in international educational test.

So, what seems to be the cause of this state of affairs? American academics put it down to ‘the summer learning loss’ over the long summer holidays and argue its exacerbating social inequalities. In addition to the longer summer holidays that the children receive, American kids seem to work fewer days in the year, have a shorter school day and only about an hour’s homework a night. Compared to European and Asian schedules, it appears that American kids lose out on 180 days of school (an entire year) over the course of their schooling.

On learning about a young Saudi boy not seeing his father for about ten months due to his dad’s busy international business schedule, I was rather saddened. However, I was surprised to learn from his mother’s comments that the poor lad was unlikely to have seen his father even if he were at home because he would have been busy with business commitments there.  This rather suggests that there is no room for fathers to develop strong emotional links with their children – or even their spouses.

I believe much of this goes back to the segregation of the sexes and the very conservative nature of Saudi families. Women and children of the family and extended family live together in a closed community. Children are unlikely to see their Saudi mother and father hugging, kissing or even holding hands. These are actions which typically take place in private with the husband and wife behind closed doors. This is very much unlike Western countries where affection is widely and broadly shown and demonstrated. A real cultural difference! The showing of affection is very much a part of our Western life and, nowaday, is seen as an important part of our emotional upbringing and well-being.  But my husband was brought up in an England where demonstrative affection between father and son was ‘not cricket’ – and that is not so many years ago. I’m glad our society has changed enough so that my husband feels able to show and tell his sons that he loves and cares for them. But I say that from the context of having a Dad who loved to be hugged and cuddled, as do I.

I know from a friend of mine, who worked as a governess for one of the Royal families in Saudi, that the male children of the household live with the women until almost puberty. This engenders a stronger bond between mothers and children than between fathers and their offspring. And, probably expalins why most of the Saudi gentlemen of my acquaintaince always claim that their wives rule the roost!  It would be unfair to say that this segregation leads mothers to be more emotionally attached to their children than their husbands, but as an armchair psychologist one might think so.  However, I refer back to my friend who said that the Prince and Princess were deeply in love and would spend as much time together as his busy scheduled and her household commitments allowed.

There’s no right or wrong – just difference. C’est la vie!

Undoutedly, events like 9/11, the London and Madrid bombings, along with the terrorist attacks in Mombai and the Philippines, to name just a few, have changed many attitudes towards other cultures and the peoples that live in some distant lands. Will conflict between civilisations be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world? Samuel Huntingdon argues that the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict, in this century, will be cultural – not ideological or economic as in the last century.

So what does this actually mean?  Well, let’s take a step back…

Confronting one of the most hotly debated social issues in France, President Sarkozy gave a withering critique of burquas as a symbol of  women’s “enslavement” – and he wants to stamp them out. Apparently there is no room in France for the garment that some Muslim women wear to cloak their bodies and faces. Addressing the French Parliament, Mr Sarkozy said: “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” He emphasised, “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.”  To enthusiastic applause, he said, “I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”

But why such “intolerance” on the part of the French?

The separation of Church and State is jealously guarded in France, embodying that cherished French principle of secularism. Born out of the French Revolution it has long been a tenant of the French way of life. Voltaire, one of the leaders of eighteenth century progressive thought, argued that religion was divisive, primitive and intolerant. While the Republic believes you have the right to worship as you want in private, it believes that as a French citizen you owe your allegiance first to the French nation rather than to God.

Five years ago,the wearing of ouvert signs of faith was banned in State institutions – being incompatible with French values. Last year, a Moroccan women was refused French citizenship inspite of speaking fluent French and having a French husband. Why? Because of her ‘radical practice’ of Islam. She insisted on wearing a burqua which is incompatible with French values.

However, in his recent speech, Sarkozy was at pains to stress that Islam must be respected like all other faiths. Interestingly, an extensive survey of Muslims in Europe recently found that France is the country most at ease with its Muslim population. Whilst 81% of Muslims in the UK felt themselves to be Muslim first and British second, over 50% of French Muslims viewed themselves as French first and Muslim second.

As I always emphasis – there’s no right or wrong – just difference. Cultural difference. C’est la vie!

The economic climate and globalisation has made industries more competitive so it is vital for organisations to have the right international skill set.  With the challenges of new markets, globally distributed remote teams,  the enormous changes happening in the workplace where people of all different nationalities are thrown together and different communication styles across the globe, it’s a sure bet that CULTURAL DIVERSITY is today’s business reality.  Our future clients and colleagues will be more likely to want to do business with us if we can demonstrate an authentic understanding for their culture, business needs and communications styles. You cannot afford to get things wrong!  International managers armed only with easy-to-learn, fast-to-recall cultural dimensions and differences will find themselves stereotype rich and operationally poor in today’s business reality of complex cultural organisations and culturally diverse customers. Ensure a positive difference for your business performance ,as well as for the people within it, by learning how to embrace cultural diversity profitably!

I recently suggested that Barack Obama could be seen as a role model for Cultural Intelligence, but it is not only the Leader of the U.S. that needs this but all of the Leaders of our culturally complex companies. Leaders will need to develop intercultural communication skills and a new skill set  for deep contextual understanding of what takes place when people interact across several kinds of cultural differences in a modern global company. They will need to develop a Cultural Intelligence based on a deep sensitivtiy that enables them to value, motivate and mobilise culturally distinctive workforces. They will also need the ability to be open to new ideas and practices, loosening boundaries and finding creative ways to integrate new ideas ‘back at base’. There are exciting challenges ahead for all those who manager culturally complex organisations. Remember though: good intercultural communication is not only for ‘over there,’ overseas or in foreign parts – it’s also for here on our doorstep – with our customers and staff from many diverse backgrounds. Cultural Diversity is everywhere.

In working with an international firm in Madrid recently, I was reminded of
the complexities of intercultural collaboration in global teams when working with virtual working arrangements.  Although we can understand certain cultural differences in working patterns and cross-cultural communication styles, it is inevitably the little things that trip us up unexpectedly…

Marks & Spencer has just learned how expensive the transaction costs in international business are when you don’t do your homework properly. The opening of the first Marks & Spencer store on the Chinese mainland has been beset by many cultural problems – most of which could have been foreseen with a little research.  One of the most costly though was their complete lack of Market Research. Sir Stuart Rose, executive chairman of Marks & Spencer, admitted that the company “had misunderstood the local market” by assuming Hong Kong sizing would also apply to the mainland. “Shanghai clothing sizes were based on Hong Kong sizing, but the smaller sizes rapidly sold out” he explained. (FT February 10th 2009). Remember to do your cultural research – you can’t afford to get things wrong!

The election of Barack Obama must be a turning point in history as we can never go back to a time where being President of the USA is solely a job for white men. It is interesting to debate and reflect on what influence this will have on the intercultural field and on cultural diversity issues. Undoubtedly he seems to have a natural ability to mix and match with his fellow human beings in a way that George Bush could never dream of.  His skin colour, minority background, intelligence and genuine respect for others of difference has him being a role model for someone with Cultural Intelligence – long may he live up to this – there are so few people around who can.

The cultural difficulties concerning the failed merger between Daimler and Chrysler are legendary, but not legendary enough it seems for Robert Diamond, president of Barclays Capital.  He found out the hard way that ignoring corporate culture can harm your business.  Eight weeks after the acquisition of Lehman Brothers’ US business much of the senior talent had left. Mr. Diamond’s famous ‘knee-jerk’ approach of getting rid of non-team players did not sit well with those he wished most to keep: “That approach is a style that is anathema to many of Lehman’s senior bankers who Mr. Diamond wants to retain, as well as the European bankers he’d like to attract” (FT November 3rd 2008).  It seems Mr Diamond has fallen foul of the first rule of an M&A – it’s people that make a business, it’s people you ‘buy’, and it’s people that are your most important asset – make sure you understand what makes them tick! Ignore culture at your peril.