You go on holiday to the quaint country of Kapistan and expect the locals to be friendly and warm on this island.
In fact, many of the inhabitants live in mountain villages, cut off from main roads until 20 years ago, they’re cold, suspicious and unhelpful.
What you don’t know is that they warm up if:
a) you express your love of the antelope;
b) you know all 20 words for rock and
c) you nod a lot.
Although this is a fictional land, the spirit of the rules – if not these particular ones – is worth knowing in an increasingly complex world, where we’re expected to already know the etiquette by sniffing it in the air. That’s not very practical so here are a few tips to see you through the multi-cultural maze.
What it means to you is not the same for me
Andy was infuriated with his manager, Jacques, for pointing out unsatisfactory work in front of others at a meeting.
Deciding not to make his anger known to the group, Andy resolved to approach Jacques about his behaviour. However, Jacques was confused. He couldn’t see why Andy should be upset at being reprimanded so openly.
The fact that Jacques is French and Andy was American had much to do with the conflict of management style.
In France, managers are more concerned about professional jealousy and try to mitigate against that by reproaching in public and rewarding in private.
In the States, this is reversed.
‘Surely we show interest in the same way’
No, we don’t: coaching a Japanese Banker in Presentations revealed an interesting difference. We were discussing how to tackle difficult questions when he said that if his particular audience of Senior Managers in their late 50’s and 60s were to start asking him any questions, he would know that he’d already lost the game. However, this may not be the case with a younger audience.
Collectivism versus individualism:
The collectivism more common in Spain unsettled Ferdy, from Germany, when the Engineering company to which he was seconded had a team picnic at the beach. Not only were the team there, but the families: children, partners, fiancés: even a dog turned up with the crowd.
Directness versus indirectness:
The Indian clients I’ve worked with have thrown up several paradoxes that can cause problems in the West.
The Indians tend to be more direct in some circumstances than, say, in Britain, but the Brits are more pointed in other ways and this can very confusing unless someone decodes the behaviour.
For example, when presenting at senior level in India, there’s a huge expectation to embellish your talk with stories and side points . In the U.K., it’s more like ‘We’ve only got 5 minutes left. Could you make it quick?’ New York will be 5 seconds on a quiet day.
However, Indians can be more direct when making requests, and very much so when expressing an opinion. In order not to alienate a whole team, I’ve had to teach indirect requests and embedded commands. (To check out the Indirect Requests, go here…)
How does your body talk?
Since so much of how we communicate is non-verbal, are you aware whether your body language is telling people to ‘get lost’ or whether it’s saying ‘OK’?
I was watching a Japanese tour guide in a restaurant, as she was organising the orders of 25 Japanese tourists in Chihuahua, Northern Mexico, with the Mexican staff.
With tourists, she kept physical distance, even though she evidently knew them quite well. However, when conversing with the Mexican staff, she was physically closer and more tactile. When I say more tactile, she wasn’t launching herself in their arms, but there’d be a short touch on the forearm and longer direct eye contact.
There was conflict between Naaz, a male Indian client from Bangalore and a female British-born Indian woman, Sandra, who complained that Naaz dismissed her decisions. Naaz, on the other hand, claimed she never seemed committed to her opinions.
What Sandra needed to realise was that in Indian culture, where gender imbalances are so distinct, it’s often the case that a women would need to come across with ‘more steel’ than in British culture. I’ve found that to be the case from Italy to the Middle East.
Much of this comes from three non-verbal cues:
1) direct and prolonged eye contact
2) depth of voice
3) physical commitment e.g. strong gestures rather than fidgeting
However, when you’ve put your foot out of sync with culture, you won’t always know. When people do make their dissatisfaction clear, they can’t always tell you explicitly what you’ve done to so offend.
It’s your choice whether you adapt to another culture, but finding someone who can help you through the cross-cultural maze will allow you to get your message across and keep relationships bubbling away at the same time.