The Business of Culture – Realms, Regions and Justification

An Opinion Piece by Matthew Hill

Whilst the person sitting across the table from you is probably not from, “another planet,” they may well be operating in another “realm.”

Justitia, a monument in Frankfurt, Germany

Interculturally sensitive readers of this blog will be mindful of cultural difference, sensitive to stereotypes and will respond in a sophisticated way when they bump into a simple dimensional anomaly.

Over the years, I have found that there is a profitable way to improve international negotiation and that is to increase awareness of “realms.”

That’s not fair!

Think about your childhood and playing outside. If someone took one of your toys you might complain, “That’s not fair!” Your version and vision of justice would be based on the universal principle of fairness. As a child it seems obvious when boundaries are crossed and it seems equally obvious that complaining about this is the best way to get justice for yourself.

We continue with our notions of fairness until enough incidents of unprosecuted unfairness force us to painfully adapt our model to include many many exceptions. It is at this stage that we may begin to experience and notice privilege and marginality and our inclusion or exclusion from dominant groups in society. This rite of passage provides a more complex political picture of the world.

I fought the law…

In business, adults tend to have a regional view of the law. At its most extreme there are ambulance chaser lawyers in the USA perceiving the courts as a cash machine or a venue to pitch a business case for gain. In Britain, most small and medium-sized enterprises rely surprisingly heavily on the letter of UK law in upholding the signed contracts kept safe under lock and key in their offices.

A slap in the face

Both of these cases are realm-centric and seem to operate well domestically. It is only when we cross over to another realm that the culture shock of an alternative form of justice slaps us in the face.

There are lands that, historically, have relied much less on the judiciary and much more on either hierarchical power structures or long-term relationships.

The former is resented by aristocracy, asset backed power, kleptocracy or Mafia like structures. The latter probably represents the majority of the business population in the world. Here the exchange of favours, reciprocity of action and the recording of these successful trades builds a deep and internally reliable system of stable commerce in the local marketplace.

Problems arise when we leave our own domain carrying our “home-realm” baggage with us in the form of our point of view, contact expectation or preferred measure of legitimacy.

It is when the entrepreneurial US lawyer, with minimal precedence pushes for advantage in a land dominated by long-term relationships that escalated misunderstanding are almost guaranteed to occur.

Fighter Bomber

Fighter Bomber

Fighter Planes for Peace

A famous example of contrasting realms occurred in the UK when one of the largest British defence companies offered financial inducements for the Saudi Government to invest in a large number of fighter aircraft.

If one took a strictly legal view, the inducements were against the law and the parties involved should have been prosecuted. If one took a relational view, a pragmatic view or a utilitarian one, then the securing of 10,000 manufacturing jobs in an economically deprived area of the UK seemed a decent and humane justification for letting the deal go through unhindered and unchallenged.

In the end, no prosecution occurred and the deal stood – to the benefit of the workers and the confusion of those who saw British law as absolute.

Bribery and corruption

Since then, the UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have reduced wiggle-room on realms and led to the dominance of law over relationship.

My time in culture has taught me that words such as right, wrong, better, worse and good and bad are relatively weak in the context of global business and that different realms may not easily be compared as like for like.

It is more useful to understand from which realm your negotiation partner is operating and to reconcile those differences as best you can.

So, the next time you feel your blood coming to the boil, remember, they are not from, “another planet” but they are definitely operating from another realm.

Author Matthew Hill is an intercultural and negotiation trainer working with multinationals in Europe.

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