Are you Culturally Clumsy or Culturally Competent?

Nita Korsten

week I went to a Wereldveroveraars, or “World Conquerors”, meeting organized by Business News Radio (BNR) about the most important export countries for The Netherlands. The panel hosted Janneke Niessen from Improve Digital, Martijn Bos from Boska and Taco Carlier from Van Moof, who all have valuable experience expanding their businesses internationally. During the panel discussion the question was posed to the panelists how they deal with cultural challenges when doing business overseas. When I heard their answers I asked myself: “Who is culturally the most competent of these people?”

Finally a nice profit!

Martijn Bos answered the question enthusiastically and transparently. He told the audience he was happy to finally make a nice profit after years of investments and learning the hard way that cultural differences are sometimes amazingly difficult to deal with.

Taco Carlier from Van Moof (bikes) replied that of course he tweaks his bikes according to local demand (smaller bikes in Asia, Electrified bikes in the USA), but other than that he didn’t meet any difficulty in doing business overseas and he doesn’t feel he needs to adjust his behavior.

Janneke Niessen told the audience that Improve Digital has good experiences in several European countries, and that she beliefs they really need to prepare their selves properly before entering a new market like for instance the US.

Assessing Cultural Competency

Of course I cannot possibly assess how culturally competent these entrepreneurs are by just hearing their response to one question. That’s why I normally use an assessment tool that poses quite a few more questions to participants and that distinguishes four different competences. Culturally competent people score high on[1]:

Intercultural Sensitivity – the ability to understand differing perspectives of people from other cultural backgrounds.

Intercultural Communication – actively monitoring and adjusting the way you communicate with people from other cultures.

Building Commitment – actively influencing your social environment.

Managing Uncertainty – the degree to which you see the complexity of culturally diverse environments as the opportunity for personal development.

(Un)Consciously (In)Competent?

Just looking at the first two competences I would guess that Martijn is the most culturally competent, since he seems very conscious about some of the -hidden- differences when doing business elsewhere, he learned from his experiences and has done a great job overcoming those differences, witnessing the snippet of an American TV program he showed, in which Martijn actively promotes his products “in a very American way” (words of the Dutch audience).

However, it might be very possible that Taco has a greater ability to building commitment. He says he doesn’t have a problem and it seems second nature to him to navigate cultural differences without a second thought; it might be that he is unconsciously competent, or is he actually unconsciously incompetent?

Or is Janneke the most competent world conqueror? She appears to be fully aware of the challenges she will encounter and takes her time to properly prepare before she enters a new market!

The truth is that culturally highly effective people score high on not just two, but on all four of these competences. The good news is that these competences can be developed! However, not everyone develops them automatically when going abroad, and sometimes it takes a lot of trial and even more error to develop all four of them!

There is hope, even when you’re culturally clumsy!

How do you know if you are culturally competent or culturally clumsy? Luckily this can be measured and even when you’re culturally clumsy, there is hope! The process of becoming culturally competent can be speeded up when you know what your areas of development are! Active monitoring and training of those competences will mean a quicker way into expanding your business internationally, without having to make all those costly mistakes your competitor will probably make!


[1] Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC), intercultural assessment tool.