Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps: Patti McCarthy on Australian engagement in Asia and her new book, Cultural Chemistry

Cultural chemistry cover

We’ve been discussing CQ (cultural intelligence) quite a lot lately at and I recently interviewed cultural intelligence expert Patti McCarthy. Patti is the Director of Cultural Chemistry, an Australian business that provides cross cultural and relocation support, and Patti’s new book, Cultural Chemistry: Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps is a practical guide to navigating the often complex cultural terrains when doing business abroad or across cultures.

Patti is a self-described ‘third-culture kid’ who has been an expat for more that forty years having lived in England, Belgium, the US, Botswana, Singapore and Australia. Like myself, she has a background working in the arts which saw her travelling the world in sponsorship and corporate roles on international tours with the likes of the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This might sound glamourous, but those who work in fundraising roles within the arts industry understand how demanding and draining it can be asking for money day-in-day-out, and Patti began looking for a change.

Drawing on her international life experience and work skills she became a relocations consultant to expatriates heading abroad, managing “the nuts and bolts of moving”, sorting out housing, education, pets and even music teachers. Patti would often keep in touch with her clients after they had settled into their new location, and this has given her many insights that led her to start her business, Cultural Chemistry and write the book which shares its name.

“What I found out was that a lot of people ended up being quite unhappy, and they kind of drank the cordial that made them think that if they just got a beautiful big house in a desirable suburb that life was going to be great after that without really factoring in that if you don’t have people come and visit you in your big beautiful house, that life’s not that fun”.

 “Basically everybody had the same problem – they weren’t prepared and then they were really taken aback by how difficult life was and rapidly lost confidence, self-esteem and then marital problems started and tensions in relationships. Or if they were single, being torn between friends at home and not really succeeding with making friends at their new place.”

 “I see two really common mistakes again and again with both expatriates and business travellers; it’s that they don’t anticipate difference, and then when they encounter it they don’t have any strategies for dealing with it. They don’t have a language for dealing with the difficulties. They don’t have a language to say “Hmm, I’m kind of not really managing this very well – you do things very differently from me, can we please talk about what’s going on here because I think I might be getting the wrong end of the stick”. Everyone’s just assuming that they know what’s going on and that everyone’s going to do things the same way, and then suddenly you don’t get the same outcome, and you do what you always did at home and it doesn’t work”.

 I asked Patti why she wrote the book:

“So many people have suggested over the years “you should really write a book about this stuff”, because I have so many anecdotes and stories, some of which are amusing and some of which are really just a bit heartbreaking.”

 “I thought that there was really a need for a really simple strategy with which to approach differences.”

 “A lot of the strategies that I suggest are not rocket science, it’s just that they are things like practicing active listening, becoming a better listener, asking questions, looking around! Most people just don’t take the time to think about doing this and thinking about what a difference it can make.”

 And who’s the book for?

“I say very loosely that it’s for anyone working with anyone from somewhere else, which is pretty much everyone. It’s aimed primarily at business travellers and at expatriates, but it is also going to be of value to anyone who is managing a multicultural team, and when we add the complexities of a virtual multicultural team those cultural differences become even more pronounced and even more difficult to resolve. I know that there’s a large amount of people who just find this stuff really interesting, people who, like me, go away on holidays and read books about cultural differences. There is an interest in cultural differences and I have deliberately written it in a very easy to read style, it’s not an academic book, it’s a handbook for business travellers”.

Patti McCarthy, Author of Cultural Chemistry: Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps

Patti is a regular on the talk-back radio circuit in Australia answering questions about how to interact with people from different cultures, and as anyone who has heard Patti on the radio will attest, her book will have a wide appeal for general readers and not just business people and expats.

Related: Book review: Bamboo Strong: Cultural Intelligence Secrets to Succeed in the New Global Economy by David Clive Price

Related: All posts about cultural intelligence from

One of the many reasons I started my own business, League Cultural Diplomacy, was that I saw firsthand how badly governments, businesses and individuals often mishandled their international and cross-cultural relationships. I knew how to help clients manage their international and cross-cultural relationships better than they were and better than their competitors did. In a way, LCD was born of exasperation, and living and working in Asia as I do, it never ceases to amaze me how lacking in cultural intelligence many people and organisations are who come to do business in Asia.

I recently attended a number of functions with a delegation from an Australian government to Vietnam. Throughout the delegation, Vietnam was consistently compared to China, the delegate’s experiences in China were constantly referred to and many of the delegates presented business cards to Vietnamese people that were written in Mandarin! Vietnamese people obviously speak Vietnamese, and it came across as though the Aussies thought all Asians were the same. Even the most rudimentary preparation would’ve taught the delegates that, in general, Vietnamese dislike being compared to the Chinese. Of course the Vietnamese would be too polite to point this out and would be more likely to do business with people who are more respectful. I suspect that a number of Australian delegates lost out on potentially lucrative contracts from the moment they presented their business cards, which is the kind of cultural ineptness that Patti strikingly writes about in Cultural Chemistry:

“You lost me at ‘hello’. From the get-go our relationship was doomed to failure, as you knew nothing about my culture, could not speak a single word of my language and were only interested in a short-term, money making exercise.

 You lost me because you tried to shake my hand when my religion doesn’t permit me to do so. You lost me when you just took my business card and put it into your back pocket, without reading it.

 You lost me at our first meeting, when you proceeded to call me by my Christian name, as though we were old friends.

 You lost me when you failed to join my team at lunch, when you didn’t repay the hospitality I showed to you when you visited my country and when you opened my gift in front of other people.

 You lost me when you referred to my wife as the hostess and again when you sat with the soles of your feet facing me.

 I had such high hopes of expanding my business to another country, but you lost me by failing to understand how much these small things matter. Just because it doesn’t matter to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter”.

 As Patti said to me during the interview:

“I’m really fed up with people not taking cultural differences seriously, because they are important… the differences are still very pronounced and we cannot afford to ignore them, it’s really rude and really short-sighted.”

 Patti and I are both Australians, and whilst as a nation we have been visiting and establishing offices in Asia to develop business linkages and trade to varying degrees for decades now, the same ill-informed approaches and derailing cultural errors are regularly repeated. I raised this observation with Patti and she agreed, adding:

“Every time I see (Australian Foreign Minister) Julie Bishop going into a business meeting with a Muslim business leader wearing a sleeveless dress I think, seriously, has she not got an adviser? it’s inexcusable!”

 We talked about her experiences in the performing arts world and interestingly, her stories provide some valuable insights into how Australian organisations often operate in foreign markets and the improvements that can be made.

“When I was with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra I went on two overseas tours, one to Russia and one to China, and looking back on those we didn’t have cultural training, any kind of cultural preparation for either of those, and I really see that as something we could’ve really benefitted from. For example, we had a number of banquets and so on in China and we just didn’t do it right when I think back now. But there were also meetings set up, we had a trade mission with us from the Victorian Government, which we really didn’t know how to take advantage of. We really didn’t know how to behave and I think that that was very typical of the kind of response that you get from a lot of Australian companies where they feel that, well, “you know, we are really friendly so that’s enough” – but, it isn’t!”

 As you might expect, international travel and such a diverse range of life and business experiences has provided Patti with bucket loads of great yarns, some of which make their way into Cultural Chemistry. Speaking again of her time working on orchestral tours:

“In China we worked with a local promoter there, which was in itself an experience. I had to give him money for the seats that we had booked in the various theatres, and we went off and sat in this little room, and we went through all of the seats and how much it all cost and then he wanted cash! I was like, “aren’t you going to invoice me?”, “No no no, you can’t have the seats until you give me cash” – it was nearly twenty thousand dollars so I was running around Beijing with a backpack, I had to go to four different banks to get five grand out of each of them”.

 “I had another experience in Russia where I wanted to book the Tsar’s Box in the Mariinsky Theatre we had a number of patrons with us so I went out with the promoter and there we were in this restaurant and there’s this big bottle on the table and we sit down and he pours me a glass and I thought, water, but it was vodka! And I thought, God this will be a night! It’s just things like this that you’re not quite anticipating, but you know, it worked out”.

 What she learned from these life experiences qualifies her to give some good advice to Australian arts companies, advice which would also hold true for Aussie businesses or Government agencies:

“It’s really about, I feel, not so much that we made terrible mistakes but that we didn’t take advantage enough of the opportunities. And that would be really my advice to Australian arts companies going to Asia now, use this as a growth opportunity because there are fantastic opportunities, there is a huge appetite for Australian things in Asia, so take advantage of that, don’t just rest on your laurels and think “you’ll be right”.”

Would you like a free e-book copy of Cultural Chemistry by Patti McCarthy? Click here for more details! (For a limited time only). Be sure to follow to stay up-to-date with more free book offers. 

Cultural Chemistry: Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps is available at all Amazon sites and at where you can also get in contact with Patti. Be sure to ask her about her consulting and training services which can be delivered anywhere.

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