Whether someone is going on a short or long-term international assignment—or even just a quick business trip—knowing and understanding how business behaviors diverge across cultures is critical for success.
Here are three areas that often trip up those untrained in the ways of cross-cultural diversity, and what to watch out for to avoid giving offense during your international assignment.
…When Proposing New Ideas to Culturally Diverse Groups
There is one very important cultural value that comes into play when proposing or listening to new ideas: is the information coming from (or going to) people who are risk tolerant or risk averse? Also, are the people change tolerant or change averse? Flexing your business behavior to accommodate these polar opposite cultural values can make all the difference as to whether ideas are accepted or rejected.
For example, an American listening to a business proposal from a UK person may not have a language challenge, but will surely be put off by the recitation of risks and possible stumbling blocks that is likely to come before a description of the business opportunity. That approach makes the American feel that the person delivering the proposal doesn’t have confidence in it.
Of course, if the proposal was coming from the American to an English colleague, the reverse would be true. The Brit would be wondering why the American colleague was being so overly optimistic and not seeing all the potential areas where the opportunity could fall apart
…When Giving Feedback
Giving feedback is another example of where understanding cultural differences is critical to effective communication. While some cultures believe in starting with something positive and softly positioning negative news, others feel no need to “warm up” the conversation. They deliver the negative Information first, and perhaps follow it up with something positive. Others still, such as the Germans for example, believe that only negative Information needs to be transmitted because why comment on what’s already correct? There are some Asian cultures where Information is shared in very circumspect ways, with great effort and attention paid to “saving face” and not risking offense to anyone.
By the way, in many of these cultures praise also must be lavished with discretion—for fear of offending those omitted, even if they’re not present. On top of that there are things that can’t be said in public at all, and are best shared only in private conversation.
…When Being Friendly on International Assignment
Knowing how to interact with colleagues when you get to the office is another easy place international assignees can make mistakes. In some cultures, sharing what you did over the weekend or asking others about their vacation is both normal and expected, while in other cultures it would be strange to ask those kinds of personal questions. It depends on the culture’s attitudes towards relationships as being important—or not-so-important—in the workplace.
We know that in some cultures, people get right down to business, while in others there’s lots of conversation before meetings can begin. There are some cultures, such as Brazil’s, where much of the meeting can occur before business is discussed.
And then there’s the role “idle chatter” plays before a meeting starts. Is it a waste of time, or is it the most important part of the meeting, when the relationships necessary for collaboration are formed?
These examples illustrate how important it is to understand and properly interpret how people behave across potentially very different cultures when you’re on international assignment. If you don’t understand it, you’re likely to misinterpret peoples’ behaviors and competencies—and you may also miss significant opportunities for greater success.