Successfully Managing Intercultural Relationships

Our 21st world is indeed shrinking.  From Montreal to Mumbai, from Sydney to São Paulo, our global business partners are just a conference call away. However, our rapid advances in technology have outpaced our ability to successfully communicate across those time zones.  In a headlong rush to do business, we mishear, we misjudge, and we miscommunicate.  To mitigate these costly misunderstandings, we need to remind ourselves of five basic rules of communicating across cultures.

1. Know where you come from.

First and foremost, you must understand yourself and your own cultural silo. While we all have our unique personalities, experiences, and life decisions, they are molded by the cultural programming of our youth and young adulthood.  What's critical to understand is that the core of your judgments and values come from your cultural roots.  Your perceptions and assumptions are based on the teachings of your parents, neighbors, and teachers.  Are they universal?  No, but we assume they are because they establish our earliest core of understanding our world. To begin to comprehend the values and behaviors of the new tribes and cultures you work with, you must first understand what lies at the foundation of your own belief system.

   “Know thyself.” – Socrates

2. Be less certain.  

Your international counterparts have reasons for their beliefs and behaviors.  Just like you, they grew up listening and conforming to role models who told them the “right” way to do things.  You will be able to avoid a lot of cultural misunderstanding if you adopt an attitude of flexibility. Before you rush to negative judgment, ask yourself if your global partners are possibly playing by a different (also fervently held) set of rules.  The greater the cultural differences, the more cautious you will need to be in your early interactions.  Of course, you can maintain your certainty about professional standards; you studied long and hard to earn your technical certifications.  But when it comes to matters of culture, open-mindedness will get you farther than rigidly insisting on your worldview.

3. Focus more on the people. 

Of course, you have a job to do.  You are tasked with specific assignments, and they need to get done.  Unfortunately, many U.S.-Americans focus so much on work that they neglect the people involved. By contrast, most world cultures value relationship ahead of task.  If these people feel they don’t know or trust you, they can’t work comfortably with you.  Take time to nurture relationships with your global counterparts, which are seen as lasting; deals, on the other hand, are temporary.  Lose the mindset, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”  For much of the world, everything is personal.

4. Be slow to speak, quick to listen. 

Two thousand years ago, Epictetus observed that we have two ears and one mouth and should use those organs in proportion.  And don’t rush to fill the silence of a conversation when perhaps your counterparts are using that silence to communicate.  When you leave a conversation, don’t assume your intentions were understood.  Ask for confirmation of your thoughts and paraphrase what you understood from others. In a second language, meanings can get misunderstood.  Written notes, numbers, and diagrams can be read (and re-read) slowly to help confirm what each party meant to say.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood.”  – Steven Covey (inspired by St. Francis of Assisi)

5. Take a deep breath. 

You’re not going anywhere; your counterparts aren’t either, so slow down.  If you are in a hurry, something will get missed.  Intercultural communication does take longer than your usual monocultural interactions.  Remember, you are developing new skills in this arena, and that takes patience.  Blustering ahead causes mistakes, which then require more time to fix later.  As with all learning curves, the more practice that you have at interacting, the better you will get.  Happily, patience is not only a virtue; it will also lower your blood pressure!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.