4 Unconventional Ways To Work With International Counterparts

Rapid improvements in communication technology and the growing digital economy mean that borders are becoming less relevant as businesses seek opportunities across the globe

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Today, you don’t even need a passport to work globally. A recent survey shows that well over half of small and medium businesses in the US — employing a majority of Americans — now have clients overseas. The same report showed employees of multinational corporations are spending over half of their time on international projects. Rapid improvements in communication technology and the growing digital economy mean that borders are becoming less relevant as businesses seek opportunities across the globe. Technology has given rise to a new tribe of workers who do business internationally but rarely travel. We are seeing the rise of "telecommuting nomads".  

While these opportunities to work globally increase, so do challenges. Navigating different communication and working styles across cultures are two of the more under-appreciated issues when working in international environments.

This is not just about language barriers. Even when English is the agreed upon language, it can be notoriously tricky. Western business people may not be used to situations where getting a “yes” may, in fact, mean “no” and where building effective working relationships can be fundamentally different depending on what part of the world you are from. Anyone who has taken an expat assignment can tell stories cultural misunderstandings, some funny, many costly. With more and more global virtual teams, employees don’t even need to leave their desks to experience these expat encounters. Mistakes can quickly lead to mistrust, missed deadlines and failed partnerships.

Studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of international joint ventures fail due to cultural differences and this does not include the countless examples of companies staggering from one cross-cultural faux pas to another. With the accelerating trend of global interconnectivity, cross-cultural mishaps are on the rise and these telecommuting nomads are the new soldiers on this front-line.

Adapting to these different situations requires a global mindset. This is essentially an acknowledgment that what is "normal" in one part of the world may not be normal elsewhere and new approaches to common answers may need to be considered when working in other parts of the world. From communication styles to problem-solving or handling conflict, telecommuting nomads need to learn how to adapt to unexpected situations.

Strengthening virtual relationships, virtually 

Curiosity is key. To develop a global mindset and build stronger relationships, start by asking foreign colleagues great questions. The usual small talk won’t work, so try these unconventional conversation starters:

Food. You might not share the same tastes as your overseas partners but talking about food is the easiest way to learn about different parts of the world. People love talking about local food and sharing stories.

For example, the differences in north versus south Indian food begins to highlight the diversity within India and the complex variations across this subcontinent. 

Skip the how-to books. There are plenty of business books trying to explain cultural differences. While they can be helpful, the fastest way to learn is to ask your counterpart what does and does not work in their market. People are happy to give examples. Specific questions include:

∙       What is the most common mistake people make about doing business in your country?

∙       What is one similarity you’ve seen between our two cultures?


Humour. Many cross-cultural consultants advise against using humour in international business settings as it can often be misunderstood and fall flat. While care is needed, it shouldn’t stop you from asking about the types of local humour within each teammates’ country. Comparing what others find funny can provide helpful insights into different mindsets and attitudes.

Social Commentary. Asking questions like the one below, say, in an internal newsletter can spark great discussions across global offices:

∙       What is one book, movie or social media personality you would recommend to someone who wants to understand more about your country?

Asking these calibrated questions won’t make you a cross-cultural expert, but they will help strengthen relationships with foreign partners and drive new levels of understanding for how business is done in different parts of the world. Beating the odds and succeeding with overseas projects requires new approaches toward communicating as well as the ability to adapt to new norms. You might not need a passport to work globally anymore, but you do need to be curious and willing to adjust to unfamiliar working styles.