These are the conundrums that newly minted MBAs will face in the working world every day. And Andrew Molinsky, who teaches at the International Business School at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, has taken it upon himself to prepare them. "Business schools are heavily oriented toward teaching students hard skills, but equally important is cultural intelligence," he says. "Students are realizing: we need to know this stuff."
New MBAs will be likely to have careers that take them all over the world and they need to be armed both with information about how business is conducted in various cultures and the ability to pick up on cultural cues and nuances, claims Prof Molinsky.
With this in mind he designed a course - Managing Across Cultures - that aims to help students become more adept at crossing cultural boundaries. He's even coined the term "cross-cultural code-switching" - which roughly means the ability to recognize, understand and work with cultural differences.
"The point of the class is to teach people cultural intelligence," says Prof Molinsky. "It's important that students learn how to switch their behavior in order to be effective and seen as competent in the workplace."
Today, the course is consistently oversubscribed and the school is even considering making it a requirement. Aileen Sevier, a second-year student from Chicago who plans to work in the wine industry, says she thinks the course ought to be mandatory. "I signed up for it and thought it would be a nice, easy class," she says. "I had no idea it would expand my understanding of culture."
The classroom portion of the course mainly involves case studies and role-playing activities, which show students how a culture's customs, attitudes and behavior - verbal and non-verbal - could have an impact in a business setting. Because the Brandeis student body is evenly split between international and US, the students have the opportunity to gain a rich understanding of cultural differences, says Prof Molinsky.
"Instead of teaching stereotypes, I try to teach prototypes," he says. "But I also stress that there's variation around the average."
In addition, the classroom segment includes several panel discussions with managers who work in different parts of the world for global companies, such as Adidas, Polaroid and Hitachi. The panels provide students with insights into the practical challenges of working in multi-cultural workplaces.
There is also a consulting project, where students are partnered with a company or non-profit organization that is preparing to open an office or do a deal with another company in a different country. The students are charged with creating original training materials for employees and managers to help them function in particular business situations. The final result is a detailed, step-by-step training manual that usually includes both written material and video.
One group of students was given the task of creating training materials for Endeca, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based software company that plans to enter the Japanese market next year. (The company already has offices in Singapore and Australia.) "The scenario was: what soft skills would employees from Endeca North America need to blend in to a Japanese culture?" says Natasa Koledin, senior director of worldwide education for Endeca. For example, the students discussed the etiquette involved in exchanging business cards.
Ms Koledin worked with the student group over a month to help them acquire a better sense of Endeca's culture and the potential challenges it might face as it attempts to enter Japan. She was also responsible for giving the students a final grade on their project.
Julia Hunter, a second-year student, worked on a project for an investment bank hoping to step up its business in Russia."A lot of business dealings happen outside the office - at a client dinner, on the golf course or on the tennis court," says Ms Hunter. "And it's important that you know the rules about interacting with people: what to expect, how to conduct yourself and how you should expect to be treated."
To research the project, Ms Hunter read up on the subject and interviewed experts on Russia, including officials from the State Department and Russian business people. In addition, she observed the clientele at local Russian restaurants.
The final product - an interactive DVD - included a brief history of Russia, with an update on the current economic situation and a mini Russian lesson, as well as guidelines on appropriate conversational topics. It also included a lengthy section on drinking, toasting and Russian food. "Drinking is a social tradition and Russian businessmen use it to gauge who they're dealing with," she says. "They believe that one's true personality may be exposed and they learn whether they can trust you. There's generally no excuse to refuse a drink or food in Russia."
Ms Hunter, who herself plans to go into investment banking after graduation, says that the class taught her the importance of learning about cultural differences and rituals of other countries. "It will allow me to feel more comfortable and confident."