It’s not all that difficult to get caught up in our own little world and forget that differences exist between us and our foreign colleagues with whom we interact and/or do business. I’ve been guilty of it and was it ever an awkward and embarrassing moment when I found out I committed an egregious faux pas. (I wanted to hide when I was calmly and tactfully corrected. Luckily, I had a forgiving friend.) Here are some terrific tips to help you understand cultural differences. They come from Rhonda Coast, who is an expert on cross-cultural training in the workplace. It’s a must read to help you to avoid making a mistake that leaves you embarrassed.
U.S. companies striving to market their products overseas, adapt to ownership by a foreign firm, or work with a multicultural workforce can become truly successful only when they recognize that the key is operating with sensitivity toward the culture and communication style of their international colleagues.
Q.: Why is culture so important?
A.: Because, for example, U.S. business failure internationally rarely results from technical or professional incompetencies. It is often due to not understanding cultural differences in how people from other countries work, communicate, do business, and interact with each other.
Cross-cultural experts have found most issues that arise when dealing with people from other cultures – whether developing business, negotiating contracts, evaluating job performance or a personal situation – are really cultural issues.
Q.: Can you explain a little more about what cultural differences are?
A.: Every culture in the world has developed its own set of values, attitudes, and beliefs that motivate the way its people behave. These values come from the country’s unique history and geography as well as from personal influences on each individual such as family, schools attended, friends, religion, political system, media, local community, etc.
As a result of these cultural differences, behavioral styles differ significantly from country to country. What is considered customary and appropriate in one country may be considered unusual or even offensive in another.
So before interacting with a colleague from another country, whether you’re in their country or working together here in the U.S., it’s important to “do your homework”. Do some background reading and learn about that person’s country, culture and history. Ask your international colleagues questions about their country, culture or anything you don’t understand. Most people love to talk about their country. Show genuine interest and listen to their answers. For example, if you aren’t sure how to correctly pronounce their name, ask them.
Q.: Can you give some examples of miscommunication or misinterpretation in business situations?
A.: One of the most important aspects of doing business in many cultures outside the U.S. is developing relationships first. In the U.S., we tend to do business first and then get to know the customer better as business develops with them (although relationship selling is becoming very popular in the U.S.). For many U.S. Americans, time is frequently an issue. We often don’t feel we have the luxury of taking the time to build relationships with international associates because we need to achieve goals, get the contract signed, etc. And usually, there is a great deal of pressure from management to accomplish these tasks.
In many other cultures, they need to get to know you first. That’s why, for example, an American having a business dinner with an international colleague might find there is little or no discussion of business during the meal. It may take place at the end or not at all because the business meal is often viewed as an opportunity to get to know each other. They want to find out if you can be trusted, do you keep your word, do you respect them for who they are (a human being), not what they can do for you. Personality and character are very important. If an American rushes this process, it could be interpreted as a lack of interest and they might lose potential business.
MS. Rhonda COAST is president of International Development Resources. Her company provides consulting, keynote presentations and training programs that enable people from different cultures to communicate and work more effectively together. To receive a free copy of her “Tips for Communicating Across Language Barriers”, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to learn more: www.interdevresources.com
Lynda Stucky coaches mid-senior level executives on using their speech and voice effectively to establish credibility, position themselves within their company, and enhance their reputation as a topic authority. She provides training through one-on-one coaching and online courses to reduce foreign accents, “redd-up” regional accents, and teach speech and voice branding for image control. She is President of ClearlySpeaking, and is a certified and licensed speech-language pathologist. She is the author of "Voice Branding for Executives: How to Align Your Speech, Language, and Voice Skills with Your Professional Goals." Her background in speech pathology offers unique skills for dealing with professional communication skills in the corporate world. She believes communication skills should not hold anyone back from achieving personal and professional goals.