Learning a Lesson in Culture
Publication: Beta Gamma Sigma International Exchange
(Times change and so do links. The original link to this post is no longer available online.)
Author: Beta Gamma Sigma

With an Internet connection or a cell phone signal, doing business with someone halfway around the world can be just as convenient and effective as doing business with someone across the street. However, for those conducting business outside the protective walls of wireless communication, in a foreign country for instance, some additional skills may be needed. Jamie Gelbtuch, founder and principal consultant at Cultural Mixology, has the interesting job of providing that instruction – teaching people the cross-cultural tools and language skills they need to embark on international assignments and navigate new terrains.

Gelbtuch’s culture and language training services have been utilized by a number of universities, non-profits and global conglomerates such as Pepsi, IBM and Shell.

“I’m teaching people how to understand culture and the ways in which cultures are different,” she said.

While every program is tailored to fit a particular client’s needs, the first lesson is always cultural awareness.

“There are a lot of different tools you can use to understand culture,” said Gelbtuch. “A common metaphor that people often use to explain culture is an iceberg. The thing about an iceberg is you can only see 10 percent. The 10 percent you see, for example, would be the ‘what’ parts – what language people speak, what clothes they wear, what food they eat – but that doesn’t mean you understand the culture. Ninety percent of culture is invisible. It’s the bottom part of the iceberg – people’s values, beliefs, history and geography – all those things that really make people act the way they act.”

However, it’s not enough to just be aware of culture, she said. You may also need to alter your behavior in certain environments. “I tell people they have a toolbox, and what they need to do is add tools to their toolbox that still supports their values. You don’t want to ask people to change their values – I can’t do that and they can’t do that – but they do need to add behaviors that are still supported by their values that they can use in the new country.”

Sometimes her clients have a hard time grasping this concept.

“It’s getting people to understand that you’re not changing who you are, you are just using certain tools in your toolbox in one place and then you put them away. You’ll never use those tools in Mexico or in Brazil – it’s knowing what to use and when to use it.”

One of those tools may be how to decipher the meanings of certain words or situations depending on the context.

“In the U.S., you can pretty much think of ‘yes’ as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as ‘no’ – there’s not a big ambiguity. In Mexico, the answer is pretty much always ‘yes’.”

Gelbtuch calls this a high context culture – meaning the message is not just in the words.

“The message is in all these things in the environment, who you’re talking to, where you’re meeting, that person’s place in the hierarchy – all of those things.”

Her programs also stress the importance of language in relation to culture, as she believes one cannot fully understand the culture without understanding the language. For example, Gelbtuch is fluent in Spanish, French and English, but is now learning a new language to better understand Latin America – her area of expertise.

“I decided to undertake learning Portuguese because Brazil is the biggest country in Latin America and they do have a distinct language,” she said. “It was important to have at least a working knowledge of Portuguese.”

In fact, it was her previous study of language that inspired Gelbtuch’s current career path.

“Growing up, I was always passionate about languages,” she said. “My mom was a foreign language teacher so she would sometimes talk to me in French or Spanish, and I just latched onto it and loved it. I was always asking for more, and when I had the opportunity in school to get into classes I ran with it.

“In high school, I studied both French and Spanish,” said Gelbtuch. “I was very fortunate to have a language teacher, who to this day is still a mentor to me and a very strong influence for my love and appreciation for language and learning.”

As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she refined her language skills, majoring in French and minoring in Spanish and business.

“In college, I had my first opportunity to travel abroad and it made everything kind of click in my head,” said Gelbtuch, who studied in France.

“They say you can study and read about something, but until you can live it, it’s really different.”

After graduation, insistent on finding a job that would complement her language training, she went to work for a French furniture company based in New York, which allowed her many opportunities to travel internationally and utilize her skills.

Eventually, Gelbtuch took a break from corporate life in New York and went back to school for an MBA in international management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. There, she became a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, experienced working in international teams and learned more about cross-cultural communication and theory. It was during her time at Thunderbird that she began to cultivate her knowledge in Latin America and the Spanish language.

“After my MBA and working in corporate New York, I decided I wanted to do something where I really worked more with people, but I still wanted to keep my foot in the door in terms of the business environment, because I had a head for business. I just didn’t want to be in a corporate office all day long.”

While conducting a vigorous search for a fulltime job, she realized what she had been looking for all along. At that time, Gelbtuch was providing cross cultural and language training for a relocation company on an as-needed basis.

“At a certain point I just woke up in my job search and thought, ‘I’m looking for something that I already love doing,’” she said.

This revelation was the inspiration behind Cultural Mixology. Since launching her consultancy in 2008, Gelbtuch has taught a variety of executives, academics and expatriates the tools they need to adjust to new cultural environments.

“I love impacting people on a personal level,” she said. “I love being able to feel like I’ve made a difference in the experience that people are going to have – helping people understand the complexities of the larger world we live in.”