6 Secrets to Navigating Cross-Cultural Differences
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Today’s business landscape is increasingly global. Employees interact with colleagues, customers and prospects from different parts of the world on a daily basis.
To successfully compete, business leaders need to have an understanding of the cultural nuances of the different regions in which their business operates. (No, observations noted during a week's vacation don't count.) Otherwise, they can face misunderstandings, conflict in the workplace and ultimately lost revenue or profit.
Plus, lack of understanding of these cultural nuances can create frustrations among teams and lead to lower productivity and higher costs. In dealing with customers, a failure to connect may even result in lost opportunities and revenue. As organizations expand globally, partner with foreign companies or complete mergers and acquisitions, cultural differences are brought to the forefront.
How can you improve cross cultural interactions?
1. Take the time to study a colleague’s or prospect’s culture before a meeting.
Assume that there will likely be some level of disconnect and ask questions during the meeting to clear up any uncertainties. For example, in India, employees are comfortable with some degree of “fuzziness” when it comes to scope of work. However, Americans tend to prefer much more black and white definitions.
2. Be sensitive to differences in the English language.
If you don't, you can easily be blindsided by different meanings of words or expressions. For example, when you are working with colleagues in India, pay particular attention to grammatical construction with articles like "the" and "an," among other words as these can pose difficulties for those who speak English as a second language. An Indian speaker may mean to say, “there were a few problems,” but actually say, “there were few problems.” Without just one little word -- a -- the meaning of the entire phrase becomes the exact opposite. Understandably, this can lead to a significant misunderstanding if taken out of context.
Even among native English speakers, there are variations in the meaning of certain words. In the U.S. we know that “table it” means let’s put it aside. But in the U.K, the same phrase means the exact opposite -- let’s put it on the table and discuss it now.
3. Pay attention to differences in body language across cultures.
During an in-person meeting or phone call, an Indian employee will often nod their head “yes” or make sounds in the affirmative. However, this doesn’t actually mean they necessarily agree with you. Rather, this is a gesture to show that they’ve heard what you said. A Western colleague could easily misconstrue this as agreement and a misunderstanding could ensue.
4. Be aware of various dinner rituals.
Many cross-cultural differences are brought to the forefront at business dinners. In Eastern cultures, family style dining is the norm. In this context it’s not only polite, but a friendly gesture, to share food off your plate -- even in a business meeting – which may be a surprise to many Westerners.
Dining in the U.S. can be a challenge for people from Eastern cultures as well. And differences in food and etiquette can be made more difficult by a hesitation among many Eastern employees to ask questions, for fear of looking unprepared or unprofessional.
For example, someone from Japan may have never used a lobster cracker before, but they may not want to ask how to. When I’m training employees, I always offer the reminder that there’s nothing wrong with asking and that questions will usually be met with enthusiasm from the host in showing you how things are done in their country.
5. Realize business card exchanges are not the same around the world.
Japanese employees will generally bow and provide their card with both hands. It’s expected that you accept the card with both hands and then take a few moments to read the card to show respect. In the U.K., more than in the U.S., colleagues will often just place their card on the table in a meeting, with less ceremony involved.
6. Get your company onboard with a cross-cultural awareness program.
By doing so, you can teach your team across regions how to interact effectively. This is especially important when employees are moving overseas, and trainings should include sessions on greetings, business etiquette and dining customs. These training sessions usually lead to many "aha!" moments.
By identifying and embracing these cultural differences rather than ignoring them, organizations can create stronger global teams and better relationships with customers and prospects, allowing them to thrive in the global competitive landscape.