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For nearly 20 years, I have seen cultural misunderstandings affect international business relationships and results. It can be something as simple as how someone greets another person or something as complex as understanding leadership effectiveness. In an effort to provide some awareness of cultural differences, I thought I would share a few common misunderstandings I see from newcomers to the U.S. or those who work virtually from other countries.
• Do You Really Mean What You Say?
“We should get together for dinner sometime,” or “We should grab lunch together one of these days.” How many of us are guilty of using these wonderful, meaningless phrases to end a positive conversation or extend a feeling of friendship to a fellow colleague? Now, imagine your colleague is from a country where an invitation like that would be taken very seriously. They might respond with, “You know, I would really appreciate the opportunity to have dinner outside of work. When?” Many Americans might say they’ll get back to them and then never respond. Americans tend to be comfortable with this behavior and would understand that a colleague meant no harm if they never followed up. In the U.S., an invitation like that is code for, “I like you, but with my busy schedule it might not happen.” The American might also think it is better not to mix business with their personal life. In over a decade of consulting, I have heard from international colleagues frequently that this is extremely offensive behavior, specifically from European clients.
• Am I Anything More Than An Asset To This Company?
During a consulting engagement for a major pharmaceutical company, I met an Australian man who had recently moved to the U.S. and was struggling to understand American behavior at work. He was assigned a mentor and was eager to establish a personal relationship with an American leader in the company. After all, he saw it as a great opportunity to establish a new friendship. During their first meeting, he was shocked to discover that the purpose of having a mentor was purely task-related and an effort to improve company goals. He asked his mentor why he was chosen, and the mentor said he wanted to have more visibility in the company’s Australian division. He was not only shocked but also offended that his mentor and others at the company were not actively trying to form relationships that went beyond the office.
One of the most common perspectives from my international clients is that Americans were surface-type acquaintances and used friendliness as a transactional currency to make things run smoothly in the business. There are many justifications for why Americans usually keep business and personal separate, typically pertaining to legal compliance reasons. But to someone from a more relationship-based culture, this insincerity can be offensive. When dealing with international business colleagues, it is important to pay close attention to how people from other cultures could be perceiving your invitations.
• Oh, Did You Really Just Say That To Me?
I once worked extensively with virtual teams for major IT clients that do business in India. In global leadership consulting, it is very common to see cultural incompatibilities between Indian professionals and those from the U.S. and Europe. An American was working virtually with an Indian team and showed overwhelming frustration due to the lack of verbal communication from the Indian company. During a conference call, he asked a specific individual a question about a delayed project item and only heard back from the manager on the project. Coming from U.S. business culture, he was expecting individual accountability and direct feedback. His Indian colleagues perceived the American as acting very stern about deadlines and not respecting the clearly visible rules of hierarchy. The American’s directness came across as offensive and the Indian team felt disrespected.
These underlying rules that dictate how business is conducted are prevalent in each culture so that it leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding and failures in international business.
Here are some tips to make these immediate interactions run smoother.
• Do not offer an invitation unless you can commit.
• When dining with others, do not start discussing business topics unless your international counterpart starts the conversation first.
• Without breaking U.S. discrimination, sexual harassment and other employment laws, try to get to know others more personally and build stronger relationships.
• If you are working with international teams, understand that hierarchical-oriented individuals may avoid speaking up in meetings when their leaders are present. Schedule offline conversations with the leaders before meetings to set communication expectations. Be aware of indirect communication and the intent to keep harmony in a group.
• Ask more questions in a respectful way and avoid aggressive direct communication.
• Learn about your personal culture style preferences and compare to other national cultures.
One of my favorite twists to an important American belief, the Golden Rule, is this: Instead of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” think about “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”
December 14, 2018 at 07:21AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs