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Cultural Diversity: How to Connect With International Clients
21 / 05 / 2020
These days, most businesses have a multicultural aspect to them. Even if you’re not an international organization with offices around the world, the sheer diversity of society itself often means you’re coming in contact with people from all different backgrounds on a regular basis.
And this is a good thing! There is strength in variety. And, since it’s the UN’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, there’s never been a better time to celebrate our differences and the things we’ve learned so far at Unity Group!
“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”
― Stephen R. Covey
(Author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
There is identity and diversity. Living alongside other cultures lets us explore new ideas and perspectives, reach a wider audience, appreciate new ways of thinking and ultimately improve ourselves. After all, there’s an English phrase that “it takes a village to raise a child”, which is something I very much believe in.
As an example, I left my home country at 18. Since then, I’ve lived in several countries and worked in numerous multicultural and international teams. How I act, think and feel is no longer down to one singular country – today, if asked, I would say that Europe is my home.
(I also learned 5 languages along the way – but that’s not a requisite for being open minded and appreciating cultural diversity!)
This is something that’s also proving increasingly helpful at Unity Group. We work with international clients, ranging from Finland to the USA, so diversity is a core part of the atmosphere here. On any given day, I’m talking and working with people from different backgrounds, something that’s becoming an increasingly inherent part of today’s working world.
The Business of Small Talk
Everyone communicates a little differently. When we meet people from other cultures and backgrounds, this can often lead to a little misunderstanding – especially when both sides are trying to accommodate the other.
In fact, here’s an old (daresay, classic) advert from HSBC that shows this perfectly:
Small talk is an important way of bonding with others, but each culture has their own approach. For example, anyone living in the UK is likely used to talking about the weather – recent research suggests around 95% of Brits admit to conversing about this very topic in the last six hours.
In Switzerland (where I currently live) however, it’s quite the opposite. While a British person will share in common misery/delight at the current weather, Swiss people see this as a statement of the obvious. Expect responses such as “it’s winter, so of course it’s cold!” or “yes, I see it is raining”.
Furthermore, when talking in the likes of the US and the UK, you will often be asked “how are you doing?”. The expected response is always “I am fine, thank you, and you?”. Personally, I still find asking a question – but expecting a predefined answer – absurd, and it can be difficult on days when I don’t feel particularly good. But it’s important to know that the answer is always a scripted response. To get to know how these people are truly feeling, you have to forge a stronger connection before such topics can be discussed.
On the other side of this, small talk is significantly rare and nowhere near as valued by Scandinavians. While Americans and Brits will make small talk with just about everyone (you’ll even hear shop assistants ask how you’re doing, while British people will also ask in almost every email or letter they send), it’s considered suspect by definition in the likes of Sweden, Finland and Norway.
Here, conversation has a specific purpose: to converse with someone, not just fill time or interrupt silences. This is where cultural diversity is important – it’s certainly something that plays a big part in how we approach clients and companies from different locations. We take the time to be appreciative of their own culture.
Of course, we’re never going to get it 100% right – understanding on both sides is a key aspect of diversity. When talking with mixed groups, we need to remember that neither side is rude, as they simply value different customs as part of their own culture. Understanding must come from both sides.
The Hidden Meaning of Words
Next to small talk, we also have the numerous local sayings and phrases with meanings that are different to their surface level denotation. We already covered this a little with “how are you?” – it’s exact cultural meaning implies a specific response or reaction.
Every culture has their own variants of this. For example, my friends from Latin America (who are particularly fond of small talk and will strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere) will often finish with “we must have lunch together”, knowing that this will never happen. In Finland, however, this could be interpreted as a direct offer and not following up with a genuine invitation can lead to social misunderstandings.
And in business, of course, we have to be incredibly careful in this area. We shouldn’t make offers that may be inferred differently than our intentions. I don’t take the offer for lunch as a serious proposal but, if a client from Finland was to make such an offer, I know that they’re committed to a further meeting. That said, everyone is unique, so we really do need to get an understanding of the specific individual right in front of us.
This is also the same when receiving feedback – again, another vital part of our work. In Britain for example, “not bad” is quite a compliment while “very interesting” can often mean someone is unsure or wishes to be polite and not directly, outright negative. Similarly “quite good” is a hugely positive statement, but Americans are more likely to say “great!” or “fantastic!”.
Direct or Indirect?
While we’re on the topic of interpreting words, it’s also vital to understand how people structure their communication. How direct a culture is can manifest itself quite strongly in business related emails and letters.
A British person, as mentioned earlier, will start an email with “How are you” and even an update from their side (if you have an established relationship). As mentioned earlier, a lot of this is a pre-scripted interaction that is nonetheless essential in British culture. When they say “by the way” near the end of an email, this is often the crux of the message.
Likewise, “I’ll bare it in mind” isn’t a promise to take any action, just acknowledgement that the feedback and thoughts have been heard and registered. This is very different to how we message people in Poland and Switzerland, for example: we are quite direct and get to the point as quickly as possible. We don’t start our emails by talking about the weather or asking how your family is doing.
So, what to do when emailing people from a different culture? Find a middle ground. Answer a few questions, ask a few of your own. It won’t hurt you. Remember that working with other cultures and backgrounds means making compromises and reaching an (often unspoken) understanding. The person on the other end is doing the very same. Really, it goes a great way to even make a little effort. Think of it like learning a few local phrases when you go on holiday. It’s an extra way to bridge that initial gap.
The Art of Gestures
It’s also important to remember that non-verbal communication is just as significant as verbal. In many countries, body language and gesture add weight and meaning to spoken words and, in some cases, a gesture changes the verbal meaning altogether.
… and if you’re thinking this isn’t important for you, remember that we’re talking via webcam and other visual means now more than ever. You’d be surprised how much you acutely pick up on! Yet this works both ways, so it’s vital to understand how your own gestures or actions might be perceived by others.
Here are a few primary areas to consider:
Crossing your fingers traditionally signifies a wish of good luck in Western cultures, but it’s an extremely obscene gesture in Vietnam.
Similarly, a thumbs-up gesture hasn’t always meant “that’s great” to Australians. Thankfully, this has changed in recent years, which has made it much easier for international social networks!
In the Philippines, using your hand to make a “come here” gesture is one of the most offensive things you can do. In fact, this gesture is deemed so bad that you can actually get arrested for using it, so definitely don’t use it to call the team together!
Since we’re on the topic of hands, let’s talk about the classic business handshake. While it may seem perfectly normal for many of us, it’s not universal.
In Switzerland, for example, close friends and acquaintances greet each other with 3 kisses on the cheek. You might also see this behavior in the UK – but then it’s only 2 kisses. To add further confusion, the French kiss the left cheek first, while the British favor the right. It really does pay to know what country you’re in!
Meanwhile, the best greeting in Japan comes via presenting a business card with both hands and bowing, before even shaking hands or making any form of physical contact.
Many people assume that nodding your head is the universal sign for “yes” and shaking your head is the sign for “no” – but this isn’t always the case. In Greece and Bulgaria these actions are reversed, which can lead to some serious confusion. It should be obvious how much trouble a misunderstanding between “yes” and “no” can cause, so make sure everyone understands with a verbal/written positive or negative statement if you’re completely unsure.
This isn’t so important with webcam meetings but, sooner or later, we will be sitting down face to face with our clients and partners at a table! Be aware of your posture when you attend meetings or are dining. Sitting cross-legged is seen as disrespectful in Japan, especially in the presence of someone older or more respected than you, while showing the soles of your shoes or feet can offend people in parts of the Middle East.
This is a difficult topic to solve, but it’s often best to invoke the practices of the location you are in. If you go to a restaurant, for example, then the chances are they will follow the customs of their host country or locale. Of course, adopt any mannerisms you can to accommodate all, but, as they say, when in Rome…
Even on a webcam call, it’s important to look engaged and attentive. Don’t look down at your phone, as this will come across as distracted/not interested!
However, across Latin America and Africa, extended eye contact is seen as a challenge whereas, in the U.S. and Western Europe, it shows you are taking an interest in what someone is saying and is regarded as a sign of confidence. This really comes up in meetings and interactions. We’re all looking for subtle clues that we’re being listened to, but people show that in different ways. If in doubt, a person’s responses will tell you if they’re paying attention or not.
Living in a Multicultural World
The thing that makes the world interesting is our differences, not our similarities
– Tim Cook
(CEO of Apple)
Being able to display cultural intelligence will improve your working relationships and potentially make you more successful in an increasingly globalized and diverse working world.
That said, nobody can be expected to remember every single custom, social gesture or idiom when dealing with many people. It takes a little understanding on both sides. When you’re in another country or talking to people from a different background, there’s one golden rule: be understanding. Expect that people won’t have the same knowledge as you and what might seem rude to you simply isn’t for them.
Diversity is always about learning and embracing what makes us difference. There may be mishaps along the way, and this is perfectly fine. Every misunderstanding is a chance to learn something new – an opportunity to show your new friend or business partner that you’re open to their culture and would very much like to know more!
And if you do find yourself visiting another country, or perhaps you have clients coming over to you for negotiations or discussions, do your research! The internet is at your fingertips, so there is a wealth of knowledge out there. Learning a little ahead of time goes a great way to making an initial connection, bridging any gaps and bringing people together.
Today, it’s very easy for a business to break away from a monocultural atmosphere – the diversity of today’s world means it can happen at any moment.
For example, Unity Group works with people from different nationalities, languages and cultures. What’s more, our internal diversity is one of our biggest strengths. With over 250 employees, we have a broad mix of personalities, experiences and specializations, not to mention multiple points of views! It’s this range that enables us to make the best connections, propose the best solutions and, ultimately, understand our clients on a significant level.
While nobody is expected to know everything about every other culture flawlessly, what’s important is that we make a collaborative, welcoming environment that lets us get the best of everyone – and what’s more, it lets our clients get the best out of us!
Overall, developing Cultural Intelligence will improve your working relationships with your clients and potentially make you more successful. Exploring differences, rather than avoiding the subject, leads to an open path of discovery.
Conversely, refusing to learn about those around you can cause offense and misunderstanding that could, in extreme cases, lose your business or damage important relationships. So please take the time to learn about your friends’, colleagues’ and clients’ cultures!
And happy Cultural Diversity Day!