6 Tips for Doing Business with Other Cultures

We take our own culture for granted. We’re generally unaware of our own cultural rules and biases because it’s just how we interact every day – habits absorbed subconsciously through thousands of interactions that start at birth. Rarely is culture formally taught (although it is in certain cultures). And because people belonging to the same culture still behave as individuals, trying to decipher individual idiosyncrasies from cultural idiosyncrasies can be challenging. But if you keep an open mind, experiencing different cultures can be very rewarding.

Here are some tips from my real-life experiences to help guide your journey.

1. Make a conscious decision to seek understanding.

Expect things to be different than they are back home. If someone acts or speaks in an unexpected way, ask them to help you understand their behavior and perspective. You may find they aren’t even aware of what they’re doing, and that engagement will help build your relationship.

While talking with my Swedish boss, I noticed as I was speaking that he would occasionally make an “ahh” sound as he inhaled, like a gasp. I thought it was just a quirk. Then I noticed his boss, also Swedish, did the same thing. Both gentlemen were professional and very personable. When I asked the VP about it, at first he didn’t know what I was talking about. However, as we spoke, I saw the light bulb come on over his head. He told me it was a way to acknowledge what I was saying. But the behavior was so ingrained, he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.

2. Don’t make assumptions.

If you assume that clear communication alone will overcome cultural differences, you’re going to make it more difficult for all involved. Instead, seek to better understand their culture first – that will help you understand each other. This can be easy to overlook when people from other cultures visit you on your turf. How can you help them gain a better understanding of differences?

While discussing a complex project with our team, a new German colleague said, “Be careful you don’t mow your neighbor’s lawn.” At first, everyone just ignored the comment, since it didn’t make any contextual sense. But when I asked her what she meant, she said we need to be careful we don’t do work that’s the responsibility of another team. U.S. translation: Don’t step on someone else’s toes. We found this hilarious, and it helped integrate her into the team.

3. Approach with curiosity, not judgment.

Judgment builds walls. The person who believes their customs are the best and that others need to conform will miss delightful opportunities to appreciate other cultures around the world. Different isn’t better or worse; it’s just different. Curiosity allows you to understand and respond in a way that builds relationships.

While traveling with an interpreter and a colleague in Japan, both of whom were women, I would open doors for them as we started calling on clients. They politely asked me to stop doing that, and to let them open doors for me. In their culture, a business man opening a door for women would mean he was a lower-level associate, and I was supposed to be the “executive” from corporate headquarters honoring them with a visit. I was surprised at how challenging it was for me to remember that. But this was their culture – not better or worse, just different.

4. Pay attention.

Be mindful of the little actions of others. When you see something that doesn’t make sense, ask about it. It may be nothing, but it may provide insight, or an opportunity to show respect and improve relationships.

At an informal lunch at a Tokyo restaurant, I noticed that, although my water glass was full, one of my colleagues poured more water into my glass. I noticed that his glass was almost empty. It turns out that it’s customary to fill the glasses of others when they are getting empty. It’s not appropriate to fill your own glass, as that deprives another person from showing you a courtesy. Filling my glass was a polite way of signaling that he needed more water; he was giving me the opportunity to serve him. I thought that was pretty cool – but only because I noticed and then asked about the behavior.

5. Be willing to change your approach.

If you know a culture has different norms and behaviors, approach issues from their perspective. This is true whether you’re trying to have a business meeting or just trying to get along in social situations.

I was delighted with the progress we had made at a business meeting in Guadalajara, only to get back a written summary that was the exact opposite of what I thought we’d discussed. I soon learned that Mexican culture is very polite and does not like to say “no.” As a guy from New Jersey, I like direct questions. But if you ask someone the question “Will the results be ready on Friday?” and culturally they don’t like to say “no,” they won’t tell you “no.” And on Friday, you will be disappointed. Instead, ask open-ended questions and seek clarification. “When will the results be available?” “What needs to be done before the results are available?” Mexican people work effectively in this culture every day. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to also work effectively with them?”

6. Commit to mutual respect.

My experience has overwhelmingly been that people appreciate it when you make a genuine effort to fit in, even if you don’t get it exactly right. Learn a few words of their language. Ask questions. Be engaged in a journey of understanding. And remember that there is a fine line between seeking cultural understanding and stereotyping people. As I stated in the beginning, all cultures are made up of individuals.

Finally, be sure to help others do the same when they’re visiting you. Pay attention to things they may think are odd and offer to explain, especially if, culturally, they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification. Always give respect, and respectfully ask for it in return. And be prepared to give and receive grace.

Blog Author: Rob Mart, Ph.D., MBA, Former B teamer

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