Cross-cultural deals are company's specialty

You might expect a former philosophy major to have higher aspirations for her business than just making money. And in the case of Claude Puntel, you'd be right.

"I think I change people's life — I really do," said Puntel, owner of the Cross Cultural Assimilation Institute. "People come back and say, 'You gave me a different perspective on life. I can see things through somebody else's eyes.' "

Puntel started her business two years ago with the goal of teaching people how to do business with people from backgrounds different than their own. She also helps foreigners relocate to Wichita, preps Americans for vacations in Europe and offers French language lessons. Clients she's worked for include LSI, Tramco, Cargill, Spirit, Cessna, Liebherr and the city of Wichita.

Puntel grew up in the south of France. She studied philosophy and English in college before coming to the United States as the wife of an American serviceman. She worked in international relations for Coleman and several other companies.

In those jobs, she said, "I experienced several cultural misunderstandings. Some were funny, some were not so funny."

Some were even her own, Puntel admits in her near-perfect English.

"I built this business on my own faux pas and victories."

Puntel said cultural differences include everything from concepts of deadlines and negotiating styles to the firmness of handshakes, attitudes regarding eye contact, the use of titles and first names, sensitive topics of conversation, and the right time for trying to build personal relationships. The age of instant electronic communication has opened up even more opportunities for interaction between cultures.

Puntel helps people distinguish between cultural cliches that may not be true and cultural tendencies that often are. For instance, she said, it's no exaggeration to say that her own countrymen spend two to three times as long at dinner as most Americans.

"In France, time is unlimited," she said. "In the U.S., time is money."

In the current economic climate, Puntel said, there are few companies of any size that can afford to ignore international markets.

But while much of her work may be for companies doing business overseas, cultural awareness can come in handy in Wichita as well. There are about 27,000 foreign nationals in the city, she said, plus even more immigrants who have obtained American citizenship.

Puntel doesn't claim to be an expert on every culture. When she's working for a client, she does research and usually brings in somebody from that background to help with training.

While Puntel never imagined living in Wichita while growing up, she's now an enthusiastic booster, giving tours of the city's parks, schools and cultural attractions to foreigners thinking about relocating here for a new job. She focuses not just on the employee, but on his or her family as well.

"You need to do think about the whole family if you want the employee to be productive right away," she said.