We all know we live in a world where cultures collide everyday. It is unavoidable, unless you happen to live in a small village. We are so connected, and yet people continue to make ethnic faux pas, sometimes leading to tension and frustration. This is especially true in business. The wrong handshake, gesture, or slip of the tongue could be the first domino in bringing down an important deal.
These mistakes are easily correctable. All it takes is a bit of education. Each culture has a different way of expressing respect. By knowing the basic differences, you will be able to navigate the cross-cultural terrain fairly smoothly and with confidence. While the following points are meant to be rules of thumb, it is essential that you study a bit about the culture you intend to interact with beforehand.
What is considered a comfortable distance between two people varies from culture to culture. In America and much of Europe, personal space is usually a few feet with strangers and business associates. In China and many Asian countries, it is somewhat less, but with strangers there is a definite taboo with touch. So no pats on the back. In much of Latin America and the Middle East, personal space is the least distance, and even strangers tend to be physically close.
Not everyone enters business deals the same way. In the Middle East, Latin America, and Southern Europe it is common to first take time to build the relationship before even discussing corporate affairs. Eagerness to jump into a deal may create resistance. Spend some time getting to know your potential partners - take them out to lunch, talk about family and common interests, and be genuinely curious. In many parts of Asia, such as China and Japan, respect and composure are big. It is expected in such places to be humble, modest, and relatively stoic in business. You will be considered foolish if you boast. Also, don't be too friendly, at least starting out; simply be polite and agreeable.
In North America and Northern Europe, business relationships are very cut-and-dry. It's less about building the relationship (in comparison to other regions) and more about committing to an objective and following through. Concern yourself more with being reliable and competent than being the life of the crowd.
North America and Northern Europe are the most time-oriented. Punctuality is vital and tardiness is a sign of disrespect. Business in general is very procedural, with a focus on efficiency. If everything is not done in a timely manner, you will end up frustrating the other party. Some Asian countries have been adopting Western views on time, but business may still feel slower. India has a double standard - they expect you to be punctual while they are likely to be late. Latin America is the most laid back. It's a general rule to show up to any event about 30 minutes after the designated time.
Many Asian cultures are very roundabout in communicating. In being polite, they may agree with you, even if there is internal disagreement. They are also skilled at not revealing too many emotions, so you won't always be able to tell what they really feel. This is all meant to smooth the social interaction. Asians tend to also be fairly reserved and quieter in business than other people. North Americans and Northern Europeans are typically more loud and direct.
Sometimes less tactful than the Asian cultural mind, they want to get down to business and keep communication open. There is a sense of hierarchy, though, and so respect to those higher in power must be taken into account. Latin Americans are some of the most easygoing and conversational people. Communication may become informal quickly. Just go with the flow. There is less focus on you as a representative of a business, and more on you as a person.
Keep these tips in mind, and you will be able to adapt to many different countries with greater ease. It is becoming harder today to stay isolated in business, as nations interact more with each other and cultures intermingle. This will only increase over time. It is a wise approach to learn the customs of other societies so you can work with them effectively, and build mutual respect. Good luck!
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