Whether you are working abroad or are required to liaise globally with colleagues or business partners, understanding how to effectively communicate with people from all over the world is a key professional skill – one that is increasingly important in today’s multicultural work environment.
It can be difficult to find common ground with people from other countries, especially when their customs and business practices seem so different from your own. So we’ve outlined a few examples of cultural differences in communication and how they become apparent in the workplace, along with some easy tips on how to better understand your international peers.
1. Managing emails and phone calls
Telephone conferences can be very effective in improving business communication and cooperation within international companies. However, sometimes problems can arise when participants don’t know what to expect from each other.
Let’s look at how different cultures might approach this kind of communication – perhaps Brazilian people need some personal contact before acting or would like to know the benefits of providing information.
Small talk can be very important for building relationships. British people might use humor, whereas Chinese colleagues may want to check with the group or boss before responding.
If there are no sensitive issues involved, it’s a good idea to use emails to communicate information beforehand, taking care to respect cultural differences when addressing people (for example, the use of first names in the UK, and titles in Austria).
Be sure to follow your emails with telephone or face-to-face communication, especially when cooperating with cultures with high person orientation.
The telephone conference itself should have a clear structure, with time to speak for everyone. Make sure that everyone is still involved by asking for feedback from individuals, and keep in mind that some people may have to check with the group or boss before expressing an opinion.
Things will go much more smoothly once everybody feels informed and involved.
Consider how people from different countries approach their goals. Future oriented cultures like those from the UK want to hear about the potential benefits of a product, while past oriented audiences from places like India or China recognize credibility through past achievements. Because of this, presentation styles vary across cultures – some like to focus on the ‘big picture’ before going into detail and appreciate interaction with the audience.
On the other hand, in-depth presentations from low-context cultures simply concentrate on the facts. The key to a successful international conference is the ability to translate information in a way that appeals to everybody – think about your style of communication, gestures and body language when presenting.
3. Meetings and how to facilitate them
Big events like international sales meetings can quickly become disorganized and lose direction if communication breaks down between groups from each country. Participants may arrive late and leave early if there’s no clear schedule, and frustration can arise if too little time is left to cover all of the topics. Perhaps some colleagues don’t concentrate on the presentations, or don’t go to the meals as planned.
Avoid misunderstandings by clearly defining the aims of a meeting and telling presenters what is expected from them. Remember that meeting culture for the participants could be very different from yours – it’s very important to consider language requirements like interpreting and translation facilities, as well as dietary requirements, if food is being provided.
Do make sure to plan enough time for interaction and a social program around the meeting. Check what is expected from the participants and keep an open mind when considering their cultural preferences.
Highly person-oriented cultures find socialising very important, because getting to know each other is necessary to doing business together. You may be invited out in many countries, often to places you may never have expected – like a karaoke bar in Japan, or a sauna in Finland.
Try to research these customs before your trip, and take advantage of being invited out to get to know each other and build trust. Not only will it benefit you professionally by meeting new contacts, you’ll be experiencing something new! By showing interest, you’ll make it much easier to navigate negotiations when the time comes.
5. Handling negotiations
Business negotiations can be tricky at the best of times, but even more so if there are any cultural misunderstandings. For example, Chinese culture values hospitality and getting to know business partners better before anything is agreed upon – eating together is very important, and it can take a long time before plans are made. For an American visitor, this approach could seem counter productive.
Think about the best environment for negotiations, who should be involved, and even things like appropriate clothing and seating arrangements – as with many of the above scenarios, being sensitive of cultural factors like this can make all the difference when building relationships.
6. Managing teams
Cross-cultural communication is vastly improved when roles and expectations are clarified. This is especially important when managing teams from all over the world. Be aware of different styles of communication – some may be more direct than others, or only give feedback at certain stages.
Spend time on face-to-face relationship building before switching to virtual communication, and make sure to include all team members in decision making at all stages of the project. Once you’ve identified the cultural differences that could lead to any miscommunications or misunderstandings, find common ground and decide how you want to work together.
As with any aspect of business, things are made easier with good communication. Although this can be daunting when dealing with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds, it’s important to educate yourself and your employees about how to approach any potentially delicate situations.
A version of this article was first published by Berlitz USA.