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June 2014

This month I had two occasions where I required technical telephone support.  I am familiar with phoning customer support and speaking to someone who is located in a different geographical part of the world to me. I welcome their support and expertise wherever they may be.

Everyone seems to have a call centre story experience, some good, some not so good.  Long waiting times, navigating several departments before you reach the right one and accents are just some of the challenges that result in customer dissatisfaction. 

As I was on the telephone trying to rectify my toll road credit card problem and on the other occasion seeking IT assistance, I found myself becoming frustrated with the time that it was taking and the number of times that I needed to repeat myself in order to be understood. I don't claim that I never feel frustrated or irritated with customer support, but I do claim that my cultural intelligence allows me the ability to 'catch myself' as I begin to feel irritated and begin my internal dialogue that no-one really cares about my problem.

While none of these thoughts and emotions will improve my outcome, the very fact that I recognise them allows me to take a different approach and change my attitude and behaviours.

I would argue that what we are experiencing here is a form of �culture shock�.  You pick up the phone and expect to hear an accent that you recognise as the same as yours.  When you hear a familiar accent you unconsciously assume that they are similar to you, that they will empathise with you, they will quickly understand what you need and what you want to hear.  Hey - they may have even encountered the same problem as you are having right now! 

So when you pick up that phone and hear an accent on the other end, your unconscious bias often comes into play.  We begin to make assumptions of where we think the call centre is located, that the person on the other end of the phone therefore won�t understand how we want our query to be handled and that they probably �won�t get it� or relate to the problem at hand because they may not have experienced this problem in their country.

You have been taken by surprise, you haven�t left your home/office, it isn�t as though you are in an unfamiliar environment, you are phoning a local company so how can you be experiencing culture shock?  And yet you are speaking to someone located in another part of the world, with a different accent, a different style of communication � why would you not be experiencing a form of culture shock?

Culture shock over the telephone is different to dealing with culture shock in person.  First and foremost if we can recognise this as a form of culture shock, then this observation can help us to understand why we might be feeling a certain level of frustration and confusion. This awareness can then hopefully help us to better recognise when we are engaging our unconscious bias, assumptions and preconceptions and appreciate the impact that they have on our ability to receive and process information and explain our behaviours and responses.  We can then be mindful of how we are behaving at that moment.

This situation is not just relevant to overseas call centres but can be applicable in many workplace circumstances.  When you are dealing with people across cultures the skill of catching yourself and asking yourself why you are feeling what you are feeling is a real asset that can change your outlook and your response to the situation at hand. It is the ability to be metacognitive � to be able to think about your thinking and hence recalibrate your emotional responses that leads to more effective outcomes.

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Best Wishes
Tom Verghese

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I am a fan of Erin Myer.  You may recognise Erin�s name from The Harvard Business Review, Forbes or Singapore Business Times where she regularly contributes.  Erin is currently a professor at one of the worlds leading international business schools � Insead. 

The book is based on Erin�s research, personal experiences and her experiences teaching cross-cultural communication and management to executives.  Some of the topics that were highlights were how to disagree productively and evaluating performance and providing negative feedback. She provides a great analytical framework that underscores the book in a concise, logical and practical manner.

The Cultural Map is a great book that I would say appeals not just to professionals but also to the leisure reader.  Throughout the book are wonderful scenarios and experiences that she uses to support and help illustrate her messages.  

" The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business." By Erin Meyer (2014).

'Raising Your Cultural IQ - DVD and CD

'Raising Your Cultural IQ' explores the issues around culture, the challenges that culture can pose and provides some great strategies on how to leverage on cultural differences and similarities.


'The Invisible Elephant - Exploring Cultural Awareness'
2nd Edition by Tom Verghese

Many aspects of culture are invisible, yet culture has an enormous impact on our lives. Like an Invisible Elephant, if ignored these aspects can lead to misunderstanding, stress and conflict. Alternatively, if attention is given to the Invisible Elephant, it can enhance productivity, improve teamwork and create more joy in our lives.

Book testimonial by Asma Ghabshi
Learning And Development Manager, Shell Oman:

"The Invisible Elephant made my perspective of my national culture in comparison to my personal culture more visible. It has given me a deep insight into dealing with people of different cultural backgrounds."

'Pillars of Growth - Strategies for Leading Sustainable Growth' - Book by Tom Verghese, Kerry Larkan, Steven Howard and Brad Tonini
Written with the business leaders and entrepreneurs of Asia in mind, 'Pillars of Growth' provides a road map to assist you in thinking through four critical concerns that impact the sustainable growth of every business.