In a world of six thousand languages, many of whose speakers claim unique ethnicity, barriers to understanding loom large across linguistic, ethnic, religious, class, and caste divisions. With humanity pigeon-holed into so many distinct groupings, how can anyone hope to communicate effectively — and work productively — with people who are so different from them?
Any soldier, Peace Corps Volunteer, or aid worker who has experienced the clash of cultures first-hand can attest to just how difficult it is to pierce the culture barrier. Yet many, perhaps the majority, manage to transcend the difficulties. How? We believe it boils down to the capacity for empathy.
Launching and operating a business across cultural lines is at least as difficult as the work of any aid volunteer or soldier (risks to life aside). The history of business is full of examples of how companies successful in one country can founder in another. Why? Because the restrictive rules and top-down hierarchies of business typically operate in a fashion that underrates or even prevents the exercise of empathy — and that is doubly true when management and employees represent different cultures and speak different languages. Crossing caste or class lines as well simply multiplies the challenge.
The can-do spirit that American capitalism has lent to the world is not the solution.
A brilliant rich-country executive — or even an upper-class executive from the Global South — may be totally out of his or her element working with poor people.
Working successfully across cultural barriers, particularly when they are compounded by the class distinctions so pronounced in most of the world, requires a large measure of empathy. Without it, communications often fail, even backfire.
All of which is why any would-be social entrepreneur convinced he possesses the solution to global poverty will likely have a rude awakening unless he first immerses himself in the culture and the context in which poor people live.
Paul Polak and Mal Warwick’s award-winning book, The Business Solution to Poverty, highlights 20 “takeaways” that encapsulate much of the book’s essence. Today we have featured the fourteenth of those takeaways. Future posts will include others.