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I love whisky; absolutely adore the stuff. So much so that I named our little lop-eared rabbit after this wonderful spirit. At this juncture, it’s best to state that I’m not a florid-faced alcoholic, stumbling out of my bed on a morning to clutch a 12-year old single malt to steady my shaking hand. Far from it; it’s just that I appreciate its wonderful complexity and the history that has gone into producing this fine drink. When the opportunity arises, I will visit distilleries and read books about the stuff. I have three well-thumbed books in my library. So it was with great interest that a few weeks ago, I read in the British newspaper The Independent, that Scottish distilleries were in shock after a Japanese single malt was named the best whisky in the world. A whisky expert Jim Murray described the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask as a drink of “near incredible genius”, awarding it 97.5 marks out of 100 in the 2015 World Whisky Bible. To rub salt into the wound, it was the first time in the Whisky Bible’s 12-year history that a Scottish malt had failed to make the top five drams and also the first year that a Japanese whisky claimed the highest honour. Jim Murray, who oversees the review that samples over 4,500 different whiskies, labelled the results a “wake up call” for Scottish distilleries, claiming the winner was “a single malt which no Scotch can at the moment get anywhere near”. The fact that the Japanese produce whisky wasn’t particularly surprising to me. I procured a rather fine bottle of Suntory whisky back in 2002 when I was consulting for a law firm in Tokyo. However, it must be said that at the time, I was rather taken aback by the fact that the Japanese even produced what I believed was ostensibly a Scottish or Irish drink. Surely a novelty?  Not so. You can get whisky from Belgium, Canada, India and Sweden. The Australians, Germans, Finns and Russians produce the drink. So do the Pakistanis, Turks and South Koreans. So do other nations. There are even whisky distilleries in Nepal, Brazil and Uruguay. But here’s the question. When you think of whisky, what images come to mind? Misty mornings and fog covered lochs. What about kilts and the Loch Ness monster? Maybe the sound of a bagpipe playing Auld Lang Syne? Probably. Possibly. Just a few days ago, the tragic case of Phillip Hughes, an Australian cricketer hit the news. The left-handed Australia opener died on the 27th of November, after being struck on the neck by a ball during a match. Just two days later, an umpire at a cricket match in the Israeli city of Ashdod died after being hit by a ball. A batsman's shot also struck Hillel Oscar in the neck. Now, both stories are obviously sad but I venture to guess that any reader of the news must have been as shocked that an umpire met his demise in Israel as much of the fact that cricket was even played in the country. I have to admit, that I wasn’t particularly surprised; I went to a school with a pupil who went on to play for the Italian national cricket team. I’ll repeat that; the Italian national cricket team. So what does this say about our notion of culture and our tendency to pigeonhole anything and everything? Whisky is Scottish. The English love to queue, the Swiss make fine timepieces. The Italians love opera and designer clothes and every Finn has a sauna. Germans love beer and Russians love vodka. You may well think that there’s no smoke without fire and there’s nothing wrong with stereotyping. Certainly, there is an understandable and undeniable tendency for all of us to associate stereotypical images to any given culture but when doing business with people from a culture different to yours, it’s dangerous to make assumptions and fallback on stereotypes. So if you work with international teams or deal with clients from other cultures, how do you cope with cultural differences? What do you need to do to ensure you avoid stereotyping and work with colleagues and clients in a more harmonious fashion? Here are ASL’s 7 silver rules. 1.     Avoid stereotyping and making assumptions As we’ve already mentioned, it’s truly precarious to stereotype. Not only does it smack of arrogance but it’s just plain wrong. Stereotyping is narrow and doesn’t allow for cultural variables. Instead of looking at the world with blinkers on, think about the variables in culture. Not all Germans are punctual and not all Spanish companies are hierarchical. Yes, it’s acceptable to think that Germans tend to place a great deal of importance on punctuality and generally, Spanish companies are largely hierarchical but the key words here are tend and generally. So when talking about cultures, acknowledge the fact that there will be cultural generalizations and tendencies but lose the word all. If you don’t, you’re creating a whole world of assumptions and possibly digging yourself a big hole. 2.     Be likeable An underrated quality – especially if you come from a task-focused culture where you firmly believe that you don’t have to like the person you’re working with to get the job done. Small talk is pointless so why be duplicitous and pretend that you’re their best friend? If that’s your reasoning, then think again. Many people who work for global organizations have a view that because you’re working under one banner and for one organization with one set of values, then you should all play by the same rules and look at things through the same lens. This is a big mistake to make. Focus on small talk, be genuinely interested in your colleague’s culture and generally spend time building a relationship. Being sincere and genuine makes a world of difference – especially when working with teams that are comprised of different cultures and may well be located many miles from where you are. 3.     Adapt not adopt They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but when it comes to working with different cultures, don’t adopt a different behaviour in order to satiate the culture you’re working with. Culture is the way we do things around here so be true to yourself in order to avoid any false behaviour.  That could be perceived, at best, as rather affected and at worst – disingenuous. Adapting your behaviour to collaborate more effectively with your counterpart is the prescribed approach as it’s natural and demonstrates an eagerness to do the right thing; and to do it with sincerity. It’s also the clever approach and if you do your homework, it will pay dividends. 4.     Be tolerant of ambiguity You may come from a culture that finds ambiguity particularly uncomfortable. If you do, you need to understand that, for a number of reasons, certain cultures operate differently. Ambiguity, or at least your perception of what ambiguity means, may well be different to how someone from a different culture to yours perceives it. Where you see muddled thinking and a lack of organizational competence, your counterpart may well see it as an opportunity to exercise flexibility for whatever reason they see fit. If you come from the U.S.A., and doing business in China, don’t be too quick to judge your Chinese counterpart if you think they’re being ambiguous. You may risk putting them in an uncomfortable position and threatening them to lose face – probably the biggest faux pas you could commit. 5.     Learn to read body language If you do a lot of travelling, it’s well worth doing some research on body language. We think with our eyes and our culture dictates the way we perceive things. Our culture provides the sign-posts of how we read body language and informs our perceptions of how emotions are manifested in gestures and expressions. We all know that the Italians gesticulate more than the Brits but this does not mean they are excitable and lack control. Japan, like China, is not a touch-oriented country so be aware of being too tactile. In India, touching somebody on the head is considered an insult. I’ve worked in over twenty countries, over twenty years and am still learning the ropes. I’ve heard countless stories of major unintended indiscretions – many leading to an irreversible breakdown in relationships. Don’t make the assumption that cross-border colleagues and clients will necessarily understand and be stoical. Find out about the cultures you deal with and plan accordingly. 6.     Use inclusive language Some cultures relate to individualism – others place greater importance on collectivism. To elaborate, many western cultures relate to the “I” more than the “we”. This runs deep in our values of what we consider positive or negative attributes. If you are American, Australian or British, you may well place greater value on individual initiative rather than applaud a collective ideal. You may well think that a group-think culture precludes initiative and therefore see it as a lack of individual impetus. Not so. Other cultures see the value of group identity as a strength and relate to language that refers to the “we” instead of the “I”. If you come from a culture that has either orientation, make sure to adapt and recognize cultural preference 7.     Don’t judge  Our last but by no means least ASL silver rule is this. Don’t be judgmental.  We all have a tendency to judge but you need to step back and accept that the way you see the world isn’t necessarily the way others will see it. Depending on your culture – the way you have been taught to perceive what is right and what is wrong may vastly differ from how your counterpart sees it. Do your homework and get the lay of the land. It may have a very different topography. Perceptions, assumptions and Indian white wine. Lord knows, I’ve had a few in some of the most luxurious hotel rooms Banglaore has to offer; or should I say Bangealuru? I’ve even had a whisky or two there and they weren’t from Scotland. We go through our lives, measuring everything according to what our culture has taught us. Indeed, our culture defines who we are and how we see the world. However, if you do deal with people from other cultures, take a step back and consider that Japan also makes whisky – and by all accounts the finest whisky in the world at the time of writing this post. Slàinte, Salute and Kanpai!  
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