"And if Pigs had Wings"
I came across this great quote in a recent Harvard Business Review Case Study "Culture Clash in the Boardroom."
"If Liu persuades the Chinese side with emotion and the German side with reason, his job of mediating a resolution will be far easier."
Great idea, of course, but one which sounds eminently sensible on paper and has something approximating a decimal's likelihood of actual implementation. There are very simply practical limits to bridging cultural differences. Folks who understand culture intellectually without the frequent and intense personal experiences of bridging different cultures in different contexts (business culture is divorced from social in some cases yet integral in others for instance) will quickly "out-drive their headlights."
Knowing when you are out of your depth
I often postulate to folks who are considering an international initiative, or struggling with one which is languishing, that they must be prepared to use a different "filter" as they look at their international business experiences than they are accustomed to using domestically. Much like the concept of "rooted maps", understanding where your client, competitor, customer, channel partner, local marketing advisor, indigenous legal counsel, etc., etc. is coming from, you must at least attempt to empathize with their perspective.
YOU WILL NEVER SUCCEED - but you must try. And understanding it is futile is key to properly adjusting your perspective. If you haven't lived there through political cycles, generations, economic cycles and recent identifying national events you won't have their perspective - I mean it! Yes, even if you eat the food locally, know the language and can hand your business card properly (and know what to call it and have it on the proper paper printed in the proper size.)
The most important component of cultural awareness is understanding where the line is beyond which you simply won't understand.
And this is really the essence of true international cultural awareness and experience.