The digital age requires cultural sensitivity

Even when sat in their living room, government officials working with international partners need to be cognisant and respectful of other cultures, according to experts Matt Minshall and Mark Roberts

Credit: Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay 

A recent presentation on a Saturday evening via video link was a typical enough scene in the post-Covid-19 world. 

In essence, we were all just getting on with work life and building trade relationships, digitally on our screens. But there was something not right about what some of the audience could see that evening.

The majority of participants were from the Gulf region, and all were dressed formally in robes and with the headdress appropriate to their culture. Meanwhile, the western participants were dressed casually, their attitudes at times quite informal. The Arab participants were far too polite to comment, but body language indicated the inattention had been noted. A post-event call confirmed one colleague had left the presentation early as a result of the lack of courtesy on show.  

We have to accept that our shift to the use of video calls and other digital communications has become loaded with cultural norms suited to UK lives

While some parts of the world, including the UK, have slipped into an age of digital working that accepts greater informality, mixing work and home lives, some other cultures have not. 

The question is, what happens to government and its trade-related relationships across cultures when we’re relying on remote interaction?

Getting our digital relationships right with the world is critical. 

That means paying a great deal more attention to cultural awareness, thinking about what needs to change in our digital routines and behaviours, and implementing new kinds of hybrid ways of building and securing our relationships. People still need to form relationships with people, not with slick tech replacements and ultra-modern digital avatars. 

First of all, we have to accept that our shift to the use of video calls and other digital communications has become loaded with cultural norms suited to UK lives. 

That includes habits that would previously have been seen as inappropriate. Wearing pyjamas during morning meetings. Eating and drinking. Getting on with household chores while on screen. The casual approach has led to other problems: employees being caught out looking disinterested, rolling eyes; even making negative comments when they thought their laptop microphone was muted. And more generally, an over-reliance on casual communications. Replacing face-to-face meetings and phone calls with a quick email to move things along.

The Middle East is a clear example. For Muslims, it’s clear and simple: the rules for life and what constitutes respectful human behaviour are set out in the Koran. Just as a beginning, we have to work digital comms around how Muslims need to attend calls to prayer, and may not take calls on Fridays. Younger Muslims may be digital natives and happy to make use of digital tools, but that doesn’t change the underlying mindset around ‘right’ behaviour. Even when the video and other remote contact is run impeccably, organisations in the region will not sign deals electronically, without having forged relationships.

Hybrid relationships
In other words, we need to be wary of relying too much on digital relationships. The savings involved are worthless if business deals are not made or partnerships begin to crack and fall apart. The issue of the impact of digital needs to recognised, and there needs to be more attention to practices and how they meet the needs of different cultural contexts and how we can set up a system of hybrid relationships where: initial meetings are used for personal, social contact; the process of working out details is carried out remotely; and where there is a mixture of local presence from some members of the team, joined by others by video call.

What matters most of all is that organisations are willing to invest both time and sincerity. When dealing with other cultures there are no shortcuts, whatever region you’re dealing with. In many parts of the world business leaders want to ‘break bread’, they need to be seen sitting at a desk, shaking hands and signing a contract with their valued new partner. That means giving up time to demonstrate a proper level of respect for the partner as human beings, believing in the power of eye-to-eye trust, not just the sending of electronic contracts.

Cultural awareness training is a first step. That’s the way to learn the rules of the game. But like a sport, knowing the rules of rugby is different from being able to take your place in a scrum. 

You need experience, time and support to deal with all the complexities of working and securing relationships across cultures, in being aware of the potential for issues like unconscious bias – and especially now in a digital environment when we’re going to be less often in the same room, when there are more subtle traps and pitfalls than ever before. 


Sam Trendall

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