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Cross-Cultural Meetings: Diving Into the Unknown

July 18, 2011

Business today is not what it used to be. We used to be encapsulated in our organizational bubbles, networking with our fellow countrymen. Then along came globalization which affects countless innovative firms who want to expand. It has never been more important to connect globally. This is not bad, although with an international interest comes the need to communicate with potentially unfamiliar cultures.

Let’s take an example. You feel quite comfortable interacting with colleagues in your country office. “Blah-blah-blah, I’ve got this great idea for the next project, blah-blah, could you please look into this?” But then your superior says you’ve got some new high-profile client who can really accelerate the growth of the company. ‘Fantastic!’ you think. There’s just one catch – the client is Malaysian, and YOU have been chosen to sell to them. Your boss pats you on the shoulder, saying that this is not a chance you should blow. ‘Great’, you think, ‘I’m a good negotiator, but how on earth will I know I’m not treading on someone’s feet?’

Fortunately, dealing with another culture is not that different from dealing with any stranger you meet in the street. Nationals from one country may have a similar cultural upbringing and social routines, but they are in fact quite unique on a person-by-person basis – just like you and me. Take a look around you. If somebody from an entirely different country was in your shoes right now, what kind of advice would you give him/her about how best to communicate with each of your family members, colleagues, or friends? Would you tell them the same thing about every individual you know? Probably  not.

It is often pointless to predict how best to interact with any strange, new person. A personal relationship with another is an organic development that starts from the first moment you are exposed to each other and interact. This is an intuitive process. There are, however, some general social norms that people from the same country adhere to. Look into these before your first meeting, and you have the foundation for developing healthy and effective interpersonal communication patterns. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Do your homework before your first encounter. What is the prevailing etiquette? Brilliant, comprehensive knowledge bases exist here and here, where you can look up information on any country in the world. However, do in general keep a critical eye as some points may be a little outdated or too specific.
  2. Okay – you now know the basics of the other culture. Make sure you note the most relevant points for your particular situation, and imagine exactly what you will do when you first meet that new person. How will you say what you need to say? A mental run-through helps you be more grounded when you’re in the actual situation.
  3. If you know someone who is more used to dealing with other cultures (or just a particular person in your target culture), ask that person for advice. What did he/she find most or least difficult about talking to the other person? What should you be wary of, and what is the best way to deal with this? Do you really need to do anything different in the first place?
  4. Think of how you can be polite in a way that meets the other culture’s customs half-way. Bear in mind that others will subconsciously expect you to stick to  your own gestures and belief systems, and that neglecting them completely might make you look like you’re trying too hard. Try to decide on the perfect mix of your own and the other’s customs.

When all’s said and done, most aspects of human nature (e.g. respect for others) are similar across most or all cultures. What makes us different is HOW we express these aspects. Once you’ve met for the first time, you will start to have a clearer sense of what these differences are. At this stage, you won’t so much be thinking of treading carefully, but rather of how you can make your differences work practically (and even positively) in your collaborative project. We’ll revisit this topic in a future blog post about addressing cultural differences at work. But for now – can you think of other ways to make that professional connection with another culture? Have you got any relevant stories to share?

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