In A Global Economy, Not Understanding Different Cultures Will Hold You Back

By Shalom Bako
Studio Firma

I grew up in Nigeria and later moved to the United States. I've always been a business-minded person. Going to boarding school all my life, I was always known as the hustler who snuck out of campus to purchase contraband for most of the school's population.

My formula was simple, I charged 10 percent of the total order. Now, if you've been to countries where people still barter, you'll understand that when you purchase a lot of the same item, you get jarra (extra) for buying so much. Or if you remain loyal to the same vendor, you get the perks of being given some extra items at no cost.

The two things that stood out most to me after moving to the US was that most people, and businesses, don't view loyalty the same way my culture does. My father would sometimes drive me once a month to the boarding school I attended, which was about three to four hours away.

Every single time we would stop by a street market to purchase items like onions, tomatoes and potatoes. For nine years, we went to the same group of ladies to purchase each specific item. And last year, on a trip to Nigeria, 14 years later, I stopped by the same street market and bought from the same group of women. I have yet to find similar acts of loyalty in America in any arena of life, be it your doctor, job, school or spouse.

This is why I began to observe and ask myself why my “friends” didn't view friendship the same way I did. Or why employers don't feel as committed to their employees, and vise versa. America doesn't appreciate relationships or longevity, and this is reflected in every area of “American Living,” which includes business.

Insurance agents could care less about where you'll be in 10 years, they want your signature now for that term policy to milk you out for a year or two. Real estate and mortgage agents don't give a f*ck about whether the community they advised you to buy in will depreciate within the next five years, or that your mortgage rates are variable and you'll soon be underwater or foreclosed. The point is, most people just want what they can get out of you as quickly as possible, for as long as possible. It's called the “customer lifestyle," and it varies by industry.

Asians are the best example of loyalty in America because it's part of their culture. There may be 100 Chinese restaurants in one plaza, and they'd all survive thanks to the loyalty their community has developed within themselves. If you've ever tried doing business with Asians as an outsider, it's almost impossible. Within the Asian community, until you've developed a long period of trust and proven your loyalty, they'll never do business with you.

Black men are especially particular about their hair. For me, I'd rather go without a haircut than go to a different barbershop than my usual. So the events that followed on this Friday morning shocked me. I drove about 23 miles from my new home to get a haircut. I arrived a little early, so I parked and stayed in my car listening to music to kill some time.

About five minutes later, I noticed an Irvine police SUV parked behind me with two police officers. One got out and asked what I was doing there, to which I responded truthfully. He asked for my ID, which has my new address, and was in disbelief that I'd driven so far “just to get a haircut?” His last question was, “What's so special about this place, why couldn't you go someone closer?” And my response to him was, “It's called loyalty.”

That moment was one of culture shock for me (aside from the obvious racial profiling). It made me realize and learn something new about America: Loyalty isn't a part of its culture.

This has also helped me process why for years I failed at either trying to do business with specific ethnic groups, or trying to force a certain style of doing business within a community that doesn't appreciate it in the same manner.

In cultures such as that of Asians or Africans, loyalty goes a long way when it comes to doing business. Now doing business with a few countries, my experiences with different cultures has certainly helped me identify cultural dynamics. Depending on what culture you're dealing with, some client acquisition cycles take a lot more than a nice dinner or Laker tickets. They require an extreme amount of patience to build trust and loyalty. Rapport takes more than just a story the customer can relate to.

Another important lesson I learned over the years of doing business within different countries is the value of time. I once flew into Nigeria and waited a week to have a meeting. This is a very common thing in that society, so much that there's a movie about it. Asian cultures, on the other hand, frown at the idea of being late to anything or having their time wasted.

On my next trip to Nigeria, I flew in, made a call to the person I wanted to meet with, found out where he was, drove to him and had a meeting literally on the side of the road.

In this type of culture, appointments aren't as valued, so “showing up” and sort of demanding immediate attention worked better for me. However, in places such as the US, that wouldn't fly … most of the time.

If you plan on doing any business with people of a different culture, make sure to take some time to understand them. In today's global economy, I don't think you have a choice not to.