Protocol vs Cross-cultural Competence

What the difference is — and why we need both in national — and international business


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, protocol is defined as "a code prescribing strict adherence to correct etiquette and precedence". Protocol is known to be indispensable for diplomatic exchange and in the military services, but these dos and don'ts are often underestimated by businesspeople, even though these guidelines are easy to research, memorize, and apply.


Protocol often includes recommendations on how to greet one another (shaking hands vs bowing), how to exchange business cards (with one hand or with two hands), making vs avoiding eye contact, recommended gifts when invited, seating arrangements, dinner etiquette, or dress code. Acquiring knowledge about protocol and business etiquette goes a long way and is an easy first step when doing business with other countries and cultures.


As a language teacher, intercultural coach, and communication skills trainer — protocol, or the dos and don'ts of interacting with other cultures, are usually covered in what is called a country-specific training.


This is quite common before relocations to prepare expatriates and their family members for moving, working, and living abroad.


Companies planning to expand their business abroad often invest in country-specific training before they engage in negotiations with potential clients or suppliers in that country or before opening a subsidiary or branch office in that country. This is a highly recommendable first step and covers the WHAT, but it only scratches the surface with some very prominent facts and customs of a particular country without digging deeper into HOW and WHY people from that culture behave, think, and react in a certain way that may be quite foreign compared to your own culture.



It is crucial to take it a few steps further and to invest in building cross-cultural communication skills and developing intercultural competence.


Many businesses opt to skip such training, save the money, and delve right into international business thinking that they will do just fine in a global world where many aspects of business are the same everywhere. However, this has cost many companies dearly, even the large corporations of this planet that should have known better.


Let me give you an example of a disastrous failed merger due to a lack of intercultural training and cross-cultural competence:

  • Daimler-Benz / Chrysler Corp. At the time of the merger, in May 1998, Chrysler was worth $35 billion. Nine years later, when the failure of the merger was announced in May 2007, the private equity group Cerberus bought Chrysler for a mere $7.4 billion. Chrysler saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in training to facilitate the merger, which eventually cost them more than $27 billion in equity loss. This is one of the biggest and most famous failed international mergers and of epic proportions, but the alleged saving of training, which might only be in the thousands for much smaller companies, are missed opportunities and a guarantee for disaster and failure.


International mergers and other business ventures, big and small, fail because both sides are not sufficiently informed and experienced in dealing with unfamiliar values, beliefs, norms, assumptions, communication patterns, behavioral habits, and world views to make the cooperation work. Training addresses these issues systematically, ideally with a combination of acquiring country-specific knowledge (protocol), building cultural awareness, experiencing culture and personality profiling, and developing cross-cultural competence.


According to Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede, the godfather of intercultural models, culture is. . . "the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one human group from another", or the way I see it, culture is what we have subconsciously acquired, what we are used to, and what we have learned to navigate, no matter how much we agree or disagree with it, because these patterns, norms, and behaviors are recognized, reinforced, and rewarded by the group.


Communicating with another culture requires us to learn how to navigate their system, no matter how much we agree or disagree.


This includes areas of business such as prospecting, sales, negotiating, persuading, scheduling, agendas, contracts, deadlines, meetings, agreeing and disagreeing, decision making, problem solving, giving negative feedback, conflict management, leading and motivating employees, international teams, building trust and relationships, and many other areas of importance.


Finally, if you thought that intercultural awareness and cross-cultural competence are only useful for businesses that work internationally, think twice. 80% of cultural differences are within countries and not between them, and we all belong to 15 to 20 different cultural groups (The Insights Group, 2018). This makes perfect sense. Otherwise, all US Americans would be the same. Are they?


Culture does not only refer to national culture but also to regional, educational, or professional culture.


Moreover, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, physical ability, ethnic background, skin color, hair color, memberships in societies, clubs, and organizations, and many other groups make us members of multiple sub-cultures. Building cultural and personality awareness and developing cross-cultural competence will not only prepare you for doing business abroad but also help you communicate more successfully at home by navigating all cultural groups more skillfully.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Renata has a passion for teaching and sharing her invaluable skills, knowledge, and experience. Not only has she helped clients succeed in a global business environment but also other educators as a teacher trainer. LEARN MORE ABOUT RENATA

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