Australians display a remarkable lack of curiosity about the culture of other countries.
Leading trade missions, I find few who really want to dig deep and understand the culture they are visiting. Most are either not interested or overly confident that good old Aussie friendship will get us through. It does not.
Friendship is overlaid by culture, so what we see as merely being friendly can give offence in other cultures.
Cultural training for businesses rarely goes beyond the “how to greet and exchange business cards” approach which is merely the tip of the cultural iceberg.
By learning about cultures, including our own, we can work out effective ways to stay true to ourselves while adapting to others. But this is a long way off.
Look at the case of relationships with India – soon to become one of the world’s top five economies and a vital cog in Indian Ocean regional security.
First there was the ban on sales on uranium – but the problem was more than the ban, it was our outspoken and public defence of not selling them uranium until they complied with global protocols.
It came across as a public lecture. It could have been done so much better in private diplomacy.
Then there was the issue of violence against an Indian student in Australia – before any investigation, Australia very strongly and publicly denied that there was any racist element in the attack. Clearly this was a premature claim and it riled the Indians, with hints of a cover up.
Again, a public spat which should have been a behind closed doors discussion and then a considered and cautious public statement. In the end, the relationship and trust were repaired but it took a Prime Ministerial visit and a lot of time to achieve this.
Underneath all these diplomatic errors is lack of cultural sensitivity.
This is the third in a series on “Why Australia makes diplomatic errors in Asia”.