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Cross-cultural Barriers 

Globalisation is creating ever greater cross-cultural challenges for both governments and businesses. The resulting misunderstandings frequently give rise to needless disputes.


Culture is more than 'just' a set of values. It determines how we perceive the world; how we decide what is important; and how we express ourselves. We often attribute motive to associated behaviour, and end up making grave misjudgments.


Culture also gives meaning to such basic concepts as ownership, authority, agreement, respect, finality and so on, to which other cultures may ascribe very different meanings.


Disputes arise when we assume that our definitions of such concepts are universally shared, and that anyone with a different perception is unreasonable, inferior or wrong.


Local differences


Cross-cultural misunderstandings are not restricted to international disputes. They are just as common between parties from the same country and who speak the same language.


Age, for example, is as much of a cross-cultural barrier as language or ethnicity, sometimes more so. The significance of this lies in the fact that a majority of the residents of African cities are under 15, few of whom are ever likely to have a proper job.


It is fair to assume that many of these youths have very different values to the rest of society.


Justiciability issues


Many investment disputes in Africa are rooted in the parties’ fundamentally different values.


Land, for example, is likely to mean different things to a Kenyan pastoralist and a New York commodity broker. They are also likely to struggle to find consensus on the relative importance of time, profit, fashion and the environment.


A recurring problem is that adversarial legal systems are not designed to reconcile these and other conflicting values and, in international fora especially, judgments tend to favour exclusively commercial values.


Missing the point


Cross-cultural awareness training that focuses on rules of social or business etiquette – usually lists of basic do’s and dont’s –  misses the whole point about different value systems and frequently does more harm than good.


In addition, it disregards the extent to which individual members of any particular group are also members of diverse other groups.


It also creates a false sense of expertise, reinforces prejudice and stereotyping, and often induces far more profound misjudgements than might otherwise occur.


The resulting generalisations are especially unhelpful in Africa, the sheer size and complexity of which is highlighted by the fact that the continent is bigger than the USA, China, India, Japan and all of Europe combined.


Dealing with prejudice


Unconscious bias and hidden prejudices are a cause of particular tension in Africa. Many foreigners - and some Africans! - have unwittingly absorbed layer upon layer of prejudice about the continent.


Some hide it well; others vehemently deny it. Still others sometimes opportunistically allege it, without cause, in order to promote their own agendas. In all cases, it is highly toxic.


Universal truism


It is a universal truism, albeit frequently disregarded, that the views we express about other cultures often say more about ourselves than about those we are judging.


Only by understanding our own culture can we begin to appreciate how it may be causing us to misjudge those from other cultures.

Our expertise


We have a wealth of experience in identifying and overcoming cross-cultural barriers and misunderstandings.


Our experiences as judges, lawyers and mediators in a wide range of situations, not just in Africa, have afforded us a rich appreciation of the pervasive significance of culture in dispute avoidance, corporate governance, risk management, and fraud and corruption prevention.


We have witnessed at first-hand how cultural insensitivity often transcends logic, education and even self-interest, and have learnt that procedure is usually more effective than persuasion in circumventing related disagreements.


We have learnt, too, to be wary of the tokenism which  frequently passes for diversity and/or 'partnership' - and which invariably sows the seeds of bitter resentment.


Our expertise is not based merely on an assortment of random personal experiences, spiced up with a quick read of Hofstede and Trompenaars, and topped with a generous sprinkling of political correctness.


Instead, it is rooted in an appreciation of the events and attitudes that have shaped Africa's rich cultural heritage, and is the outcome of a concerted effort better to understand the complexity of many contemporary commercial disputes.


We apply our insights to all our services. We also offer customized training workshops on the topic.

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