BookMarks November 2020Nov 16, 2020
The Mindful International Manager: How to work effectively across cultures (2nd edition) by Jeremy Comfort and Peter Franklin
Reviewed by Craig Storti
Readers may have wondered at times about all the nervous energy emanating from this column; it jumps around a lot, landing here one month (featuring a travel book), there the next (a novel), and somewhere else altogether on yet another occasion (a film). When is he going to review an honest-to-goodness cross-cultural book, for heaven's sake? Setting aside for a moment any discussion of what that phrase really means, we do recognize that at least some of our readers rely on this column to draw their attention to important titles in the intercultural field, both new and old, so they can increase their understanding of key concepts and add to their knowledge base. So, this month we’ve decided to exercise restraint and review a “normal” book (which of course only liberates us to go wild again next month). Full disclosure: I am a colleague and friend of one of the co-authors, Peter Franklin, and wrote the Foreword to the book featured here, and Peter wrote the Foreword to my book The Art of Doing Business Across Cultures).
The Mindful International Manager is one of my favorite cross-cultural books; indeed, if I only had the money to buy one book in our field, this would be a strong candidate. (Culture’s Consequences would be real competition.) The main reason is there’s just so much here. Granted, the title makes it sound like a business book—and it is certainly that—but it’s full of content that transcends business contexts and can be used in a variety of other circumstances.
“There’s so much here,” we said. Fine, like what? The book touches on all the recognized and accepted cultural dichotomies—and then some; things like communication styles (numerous dimensions, such as feedback, resolving conflict); leadership styles (numerous categories); power distance; gender dynamics; time orientation; managing styles (many aspects); trust dynamics; nonverbal communication; identity; attitudes toward change; organizational culture; team dynamics; performance orientation. The list goes on. So, that’s point No. 1: You can turn to this book for useful insight no matter what your particular interest or needs might be. (There’s even a glossary of key intercultural terms.) That doesn’t mean you won’t have to turn to other books for more detailed discussions of certain topics, but a book like this is the place to start. And not just to start; with regard to leadership and management, among other topics, this is much more than a quick overview.
Point No. 2 is the variety of ways the book engages with its numerous topics, how it presents its information. There are numerous, extremely helpful charts, diagrams, and other visuals representations of key content; 11 very specific case studies you are challenged to unpack; many great boxes with succinct tips and suggestions; the book cites/references most of the major studies in the field. In short it is an impressive blend of theory and practice, with an emphasis on the latter; you can read it to expand your understanding of our field but also to develop specific skills.
So, what exactly is a mindful international manager, anyway? The short answer is that it’s someone who is keenly aware (mindful) of his/her values, attitudes and preferred behaviors, mindful of those values etc. of people from other cultures with whom he/she interacts, and the resulting need to negotiate key differences.
But here’s how the authors describe it:
Mindful international managers are aware of the threats to successful communication and of the resulting need for mindful interaction. That is to say, they focus not just on the outcome of their interaction but also on the context of communication…[which] is made up of the cultures of those communicating and of their personalities as well as the situation in which they find themselves.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, perhaps, but not to worry: it’s all made very clear through a well-organized sequence of topics, all presented in very accessible prose that avoids jargon without dumbing down the content for the uninitiated. Whether you are a seasoned interculturalist, a rookie interculturalist, or just a normal person who needs to know this intercultural stuff for one reason or another, you will find great value in these 230 pages. (Be sure to get the 2nd edition).
As is our custom here at BookMarks, we interviewed the co-authors and here’s what they told us.
- Why did you write this book?
Jeremy: At the time, Peter and I were looking for a way to make intercultural theory relevant and helpful for practising managers. I had often found that the word 'culture' turned practising managers off. I had been helping international managers to develop a more responsive leadership style and the book forced me to put my training practice into a coherent whole.
Peter: I wanted to relate my more theoretical knowledge and understanding of the field to Jeremy’s greater practical experience of international HR development and learn from this. Writing a book is a learning experience; writing a book with somebody whose work you appreciate more than doubles this learning.
- What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?
Jeremy: I wanted the reader to see the importance of holding up the mirror and understanding how their personality, culture and their ability to adapt to the situation were critical in doing business across cultures.
Peter: That intercultural interaction is not the simple sending and receiving of information or even the encoding and decoding of messages. How can it be when the codes used may be so different? I wanted to make clear that it is a complex process of expression and construction of meaning influenced not only by culture (though that of course is key) but also by the people involved and the situation they are in.
- Name one or two books in our field that influenced you the most, that you think all interculturalists should be familiar with? Why?
Jeremy: I still find that Edward Hall's analysis of context the most insightful of all the dimensions. Coming from a language teaching background, it struck an immediate chord with what I had been observing in the communication preferences of my trainees. Understanding our own individual and cultural preferences for high or low context communication allows us to be mindful of the enormous range of communication styles. ET and MR Hall, Understanding Cultural Differences 1990).
Peter: Three questions here! 1) I was set off on my intercultural career in the early nineties by two books – one by the US scholar David Victor, who published International Business Communication in 1992, and the other by the British academic Richard Mead, who published Cross-Cultural Management Communication in 1990. These titles make clear my roots in the teaching of E.S.P. and especially business English. 2) But clearly the most influential for me and the one all interculturalists should be familiar with was the easy-to-read version of Hofstede’s Cultures Consequences appearing in 1994 (and subsequently in updated editions) called Cultures and Organizations. The battered state of this book on my shelves - with its spine broken and full of notes and post-its - underlines its significance in the earlier part of my career. 3) Why? Because despite justified (and unjustified) criticism and whether you buy in to it or not, Hofstede’s work has shaped beyond measure how scholars and practitioners regard work-related intercultural interaction in and among international companies and organisations.
- What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?
Jeremy: Reflecting on my own life I now realise the central role that culture has played. My parents lived abroad, and I was educated mainly in a boarding school in Britain. I remember, with some embarrassment, driving through central Europe when I was about 8 and pinning a British Union Jack to the window. I realise now that I wanted to assert my own cultural identity. In my career, I was based in the UK but worked across Europe and beyond and increasingly felt I had more in common with the 'foreigners' I worked with than my neighbours at home. As Brexit plays itself out this feeling of alienation with my own culture gets stronger. I sometimes feel envious of those who feel more at ease in their own home.
Peter: Living, working and bringing up children in what was when I arrived in Germany 42 years ago an unfamiliar country and what has become a much-appreciated home.
- If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?
Jeremy: Curiosity and interest in other cultures has given me such pleasure. I feel that it lies at the heart of tolerance of difference and ambiguity.
Peter: Try to be slow to judge and willing to change.
- This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. If you’d like to say something else to these folks, something we have not asked about in this questionnaire, feel free to add your brief comments here.
Jeremy: In some respects, it becomes more difficult to be mindful as you get older. I find myself prone to judging too quickly and being intolerant of others
and their different ways of living and working. These feelings are always overcome when you get the chance to sit down and properly talk. We all need to step outside our comfort zones and interact with the incredible diversity that is around us.
Peter: Read the work of Helen Spencer-Oatey, Bill Gudykunst, Stella Ting-Toomey and Ellen Langer.