Monday, 30 July 2012

Cross Cultural Issues and International Awareness Matter

As anyone who does business or engages with other countries will tell you one of the most important issues to prepare for any cross cultural encounter is to double check that nothing will be done that will embarrass, offend or irritate your foreign partners. Mistakes make an interlocutor look incompetent or distinctly parochial. This obviously matters when it applies to one of the world’s leading international centres of business, a global meeting point and the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games.

It is absolutely staggering that with 7 years to prepare London’s Olympic organising committee, LOCOG, has shown extraordinary lack of attention to international details that could make or break the 2012 Olympics. London looks far from the multi cultural success story in many foreign eyes in the light of recent cultural gaffes that loomed on the eve of the opening of the London Games.

It is hard to imagine a more damaging diplomatic episode than the South Korean flag being displayed on screens with the North Korean team on the pitch. Given the decades of hostilities and the huge sensitivities over a raft of issues between the two countries it is mind-boggling that no-one thought to double check that the correct flag would be displayed.  A similar belt and braces approach needs to be applied to the national anthems – which constitute  another potential high-casualty area.  

David Cameron’s dismissal of the deeply damaging flag incident as an “honest mistake” in no way mitigates the impact. Anyone who has worked in the international arena knows that mistakes are just not acceptable as an excuse for lack of preparation and attention to this predictable minefield of sensitivities.

What is most troubling is that the offence given to the North Korean team was not the only incident in this area.  Further problems arose after Britain’s Foreign Office was obliged to intervene after the display on London’s Regent Street of the Taiwanese flag, rather than the flag of the Chinese Taipei Olympic committee, the body under which Taiwan’s team officially competes. China is of course hugely sensitive about Taiwan, which it regards as part of its national territory.  

LOCOG were also having to placate Ukraine and Armenia after athlete information on an official Games website appeared to suggest the two countries were still part of Russia. Both countries independence was recognised in 1991.

Other cross cultural gaffes occurred on Wednesday at the Westfield shopping centre, where most Olympic ticket holders would pass on their way to the Olympic site from Stratford rail station, where the Arabic welcome signs were back to front on both sign boards and staff t-shirts.

London is widely regarded as a leading international centre.  Anybody conducting international business knows that avoiding cultural mistakes is key to a successful outcome.  With hundreds of millions of global television viewers focused on the London Olympics for the next several weeks LOCOG should take particular note that London’s reputation as a global business centre post games is also at stake. In today’s straightened global economic context foreign investment is incredibly important to the UK.  It is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy to get our cross cultural communications right.  An international, culturally aware approach is not an optional add-on , it is integral to the success and renewal of the British economy.

Alexandrite international communications specialises in cross cultural global communications, international media and reputation management