Investigating Across Cultures: Strategies and Challenges

When conducting international investigations, cultural awareness is critical to their success. Whether you’re investigating a business deal or a criminal case, it is key to overcoming challenges and making informed decisions. Cultural awareness is more than just knowing the language, customs, and traditions of a particular region. It involves understanding the underlying beliefs, values, and social norms that shape behaviour and communication. Without this understanding, investigators risk misinterpreting important information, making inappropriate assumptions, and damaging relationships with key stakeholders.

Given the increasing global nature of business and crime, cultural awareness is more important than ever in international investigations. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, cultural differences were identified as the top challenge in conducting them.

A street in Ethiopia in the middle of the day

To overcome these challenges, it’s essential that investigators take the time to develop awareness and build cultural competency. This includes understanding the factors that impact investigations, recognizing and addressing differences, and developing effective communication strategies. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of cultural awareness in international investigations and provide practical strategies for developing better competency.


Cultural Awareness in International Investigations

Cultural understanding is essential for success in foreign investigations and, as mentioned, involves understanding the norms, beliefs, and values that shape behavior and communication in a particular region. These are some crucial aspects to consider in order to increase your skills:


1. Differences: Cultural differences may appear in a variety of ways:

  • Differences in language and communication styles.
  • Variances in business practices and etiquette.
  • Diverse attitudes towards law enforcement and the legal system.
  • Contrasting views on privacy and confidentiality.
  • Different interpretations of body language and nonverbal communication.


2. Awareness: It is not only essential for avoiding misunderstandings but can also provide valuable insights:

  • More effective communication with witnesses, suspects, and other stakeholders.
  • Improved relationship building with local law enforcement and business partners.
  • Greater ability to identify and assess cultural factors that may impact the investigation.
  • Enhanced ability to anticipate and address potential challenges or obstacles.


3. Recognizing and Addressing Differences: Recognizing and addressing differences is key to building cultural awareness and developing cultural competency:

  • Conducting cultural training for investigators and other team members.
  • Engaging in active listening and asking clarifying questions to ensure clear communication.
  • Adapting investigation approaches and techniques to suit local cultural norms and practices.


Example: In the early 2000s, Nokia, the Finnish technology company, was experiencing a significant increase in fraud and corruption allegations related to its operations in Asia. To address this issue, the company established a new internal investigations unit that focused on developing cultural awareness and building relationships with local stakeholders. The unit established a network of local contacts, including lawyers, accountants, and law enforcement officials, and provided cultural training to investigators. As a result, the unit was able to identify and address key factors that were contributing to the fraud and corruption, leading to significant improvements in the company’s operations in the region.


Strategies for Development

A Tokyo alleyway at night

Cultural awareness is a process that requires time and effort. However, with the appropriate approach, you may acquire ways to help you establish and improve it at the expertise level of your organization:


Education and training

  • Cultural training and education programs.
  • Language classes or language exchange programs.
  • Cultural immersion programs.


Building Relationships

Building relationships with local stakeholders is crucial to gaining insights into norms, values, and practices:

  • Building relationships with local business partners and contacts.
  • Engaging with community groups and cultural organizations.
  • Attending cultural events and festivals.


Active Listening

  • Asking open-ended questions.
  • Clarifying misunderstandings.
  • Paying attention to nonverbal communication.


Cultural Adaptability

Cultural adaptability involves being flexible and adaptable to different norms and practices:

  • Adapting communication styles to suit local cultural norms.
  • Adapting investigation approaches and techniques to suit local practices.
  • Showing respect for local customs and traditions.


As an example, In 2018, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) launched a new program to improve cultural awareness and cultural competency among law enforcement officials. The program focused on a range of strategies, including cultural training and education, building relationships with local stakeholders, and developing adaptability. It also emphasized the importance of active listening and cross-cultural communication, with a particular focus on nonverbal communication. Thanks to its high focus on important learning strategies, the program has been successful in improving the effectiveness of international investigations and fostering better relationships between law enforcement officials and local communities.



unique investigative tools

As you might expect, conducting cross-cultural investigations can be extremely challenging. It involves dealing with and navigating all of the major cultural variations and potential language hurdles we’ve discussed so far, but digging a little deeper, there might be even more complications:

cultural nuances:

Nuances can include communication styles, attitudes towards authority, and even perceptions of time.

Language Barriers:

It can be difficult to conduct an investigation if the investigator and the witnesses or suspects do not speak the same language. Misunderstandings can arise, and critical information may be lost in translation. Interpreters can be used to bridge the language gap, but they may not always be available or reliable.

Lack of Understanding:

For example, a particular behavior that may be considered suspicious in one culture may be completely normal in another.


Stereotyping occurs when investigators make assumptions about a person based on their cultural background rather than on evidence. This can lead to biased investigations and incorrect conclusions.


Case Studies

A photograph shot in an african city

The Japan-US Auto Industry Case

In the 1980s, the Japanese auto industry made a significant impact on the US market. However, this success was overshadowed by allegations of corruption and illegal practices. When US regulators attempted to investigate the issue, they encountered numerous cultural barriers. For example, in Japan, gift-giving is a standard business practice, which can be misunderstood by Americans as bribery. To overcome this challenge, investigators had to develop cultural awareness and build trust with their Japanese counterparts to gain access to critical information.

The Saudi Aramco cyberattack

In 2012, the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco was hit by a massive cyberattack that destroyed thousands of computers and servers. The company’s cybersecurity team soon discovered that the attack was orchestrated by a group of hackers known as the “Cutting Sword of Justice,” with ties to Iran. The investigation faced several challenges due to cultural differences, including language barriers and the perception of state-sponsored hacking in the Middle East. The team had to work closely with Saudi authorities to navigate these challenges and obtain critical evidence.


Final Thoughts

As we’ve seen, cultural competency is critical when conducting cross-cultural investigations, as it helps investigators navigate language barriers, cultural differences, and different nuances.

Through strategies such as researching the target culture, building relationships with local contacts, and actively listening and observing, investigators can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural context in which they are operating. This understanding can help prevent misunderstandings, reduce the risk of unintended consequences, and ultimately increase the likelihood of successful investigations in the future.

Cross-cultural research involves comparing and contrasting different cultures to understand similarities and differences in attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. An example of cross-cultural research might be a study that examines how cultural values and beliefs affect attitudes toward mental health treatment in different countries.
A cross-cultural incident is an event that occurs when people from different cultural backgrounds interact in a way that leads to misunderstandings or conflict. An example of a cross-cultural incident might be a miscommunication between a manager and an employee from a different cultural background that results in the employee feeling disrespected or marginalized.
There are several methods used in cross-cultural research, including surveys, interviews, and observational studies. However, the most commonly used method is the cross-cultural comparison, which involves comparing data collected from different cultural groups to identify similarities and differences.
Dealing with cross-cultural issues requires cultural sensitivity and awareness. Some ways to address cross-cultural issues include:• Learning about different cultures and their customs, beliefs, and values. • Avoiding stereotypes and assumptions. • Communicating clearly and actively listening to others. • Respecting differences and being open to learning from others. • Seeking help from cultural experts or mediators if needed.
Cultural risks are the risks associated with differences in culture that can affect business operations or relationships. Examples of cultural risks include language barriers, differences in communication styles, cultural norms and taboos, different attitudes toward time and punctuality, and differences in business practices and ethics.
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