When in Rome: Cross-Cultural Communication

January 10, 2008

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When working with customers, colleagues and other partners abroad, not knowing the correct cultural business methods limits your effectiveness. At best, you can inadvertently create a wall of misunderstanding; worse, you may lose a major opportunity. Here are a few things to consider.

"Having worked in many countries, I have come to the realisation [sic.] that you can never fully comprehend another culture — those values, attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that make up the way people (including ourselves) see the world," according to a recent feature at EngineerLive. "But by making inquiries, you can increase your chance of understanding, and then adjust your response a little so there are fewer crossed wires."

The article's author, Peter Curran, a consultant at Farnham Castle, offers some tips based on his experiences. Here a few of them (summarized):

Being patient when people in other countries sometimes do things more slowly, and building additional contingency time into plans because of this;

Considering the priorities of people in other places; understanding that values elsewhere likely will not be the same (e.g., integrity and loyalty places above wealth);

Many of us may be used to taking orders or giving them, but recognize that in some cultures "it is a virtue to listen to multiple views and find consensus" and that you can inadvertently create a wall of misunderstanding (at best) or loss of an opportunity by trying to do things like we do them in the country we consider home; and

Getting down to work after a five-minute introduction isn't the way to succeed in some other cultures, so take time to meet those with whom you must interact to do your job and get to know them on a personal level before expecting them to do business with you; and

Respect the power structure. For example, do not expect underlings to give you creative ideas in a meeting before they have had a chance let their supervisors vet them, as doing so would threaten those with more power, potentially leading to a loss of face for both the lower-level employee and the supervisor.

Know that you never want to leave others with a "loss of face." For example, the author writes, rather than asking, "Will the report be ready by Monday?" a better line of questioning would be, "When will it be ready?" By using the former, if the employee can't make it by Monday, he or she might consider it disrespectful and implying incompetence.

Choose your words carefully. If you can communicate in the way in which your counterpart does, you're more likely to meet with more success than if you communicate as you would with, say, a fellow American. In some cultures, it is better to listen at length; in others, it is best to take turns speaking, according to A. J. Schuler at Schuler Solutions.

Remember the etiquette best suited among the people with whom you're interacting in the culture in which you're working. Additional tips are available at SideRoad.com.

Resources

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Working Across Cultures by Peter Curran EngineerLive, Jan. 9, 2008

Tips for Successful Cross Cultural Communication by A. J. Schuler Cross Cultural Communication

International Business Etiquette Tips by Lydia Ramsey Sideroad.com

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