How To Adapt Your Behaviour Across Cultures

How we speak and act as well as what we interpret can go a long way towards how successfully we navigate cultural boundaries. In a work situation, this can make a critical difference, and we have all experienced examples of how cultural misunderstandings can occur.

You go on holiday to the quaint country of Kapistan and expect the locals to be friendly and warm on this island.

In fact, many of the inhabitants live in mountain villages, cut off from main roads.  They’re cold, suspicious and unhelpful.

However, they warm to strangers if:

  1. you express your love of the antelope;
  2. you know all 20 words for rock and
  3. you nod a lot.

Although this is a fictional land, the spirit of the rules – if not these particular ones – is worth knowing in an increasingly complex world.

In a world where many nationalities are working together to solve problems and keep each other informed, often without their regular physical presence, misunderstandings abound. Here are five ways that cultural differences can cause issues, and how you can use communication skills to overcome these issues.

What it means to you is not the same for me

Andy was infuriated with his manager, Jacques, for pointing out unsatisfactory work in front of others at a meeting.

Deciding not to make his anger known to the group, Andy resolved to approach Jacques privately about his behaviour. However, Jacques was confused. He couldn’t see why Andy should be upset at being reprimanded so openly.

The fact that Jacques was French and Andy was American had much to do with the conflict of management styles.

In France, managers are more concerned about professional jealousy and try to mitigate against that by reproaching in public and rewarding in private.

In the States, this is reversed.

‘Surely we show interest in the same way’

No, we don’t: coaching a Japanese banker in presentation skills revealed an interesting difference.

We were discussing how to tackle difficult questions. He informed me that if his particular audience of senior managers in their late 50s and 60s were to start asking him any questions, he would know that he’d already lost the game. They’ll ask questions when they doubt the credibility of you or your content. However, this may not be the case with a younger audience.

Collectivism versus individualism:

It may be considered impolite not to have lunch with your colleagues is one example of how collectivism may express itself.

The collectivism more common in Spain unsettled Ferdy, from Germany, when the Engineering company to which he was seconded had a team picnic at the beach. Not only were the team there, but also the families; children, partners, fiancés, even a dog turned up with the crowd. Ferdy wasn’t expecting this and felt that the boundaries of professionalism had been breached.

How much is communicated in a group setting can also be regulated by culture. The Russian web developers I’ve worked with will be very guarded about their thoughts in a group meeting or exercise, but will be open and friendly in one-to-one meetings, and especially in emails.

Directness versus indirectness:

The Indians tend to be more direct in some circumstances than, say, in Britain, but the Brits are more pointed in other ways and this can very confusing unless someone decodes the behaviour.

For example, when presenting at senior level in India, there’s a huge expectation to embellish your talk with stories and side points. In the UK, however, it’s more like “We’ve only got five minutes left. Could you make it quick?” In New York, this’ll be five seconds on a quiet day.

However, Indians can be more direct when making requests, and very much so when expressing an opinion. In order not to alienate a whole team, I’ve had to teach indirect requests and embedded commands. (To check out the Indirect Requests, go here…)

How does your body talk?

Since so much of how we communicate is non-verbal, are you aware whether your body language is telling people to ‘get lost’ or whether it’s saying ‘OK’?

I was watching a Japanese tour guide in a restaurant, as she was organising the orders of 25 Japanese tourists in Chihuahua, Northern Mexico.

With her tour group, she kept physical distance, even though she evidently knew them quite well. However, when conversing with the Mexican staff, she was physically closer and more tactile. I don’t mean that she was launching herself into their arms, but there’d be a short touch on the forearm and longer direct eye contact, both far more natural in Mexico than in a professional situation in Japan.

In another situation, there was conflict between Naaz, a male Indian client from Bangalore, and a female British-born Indian woman, Sandra, who complained that Naaz dismissed her decisions. Naaz, on the other hand, claimed she never seemed committed to her opinions.

I sat them down and we talked about the impact of culture on behaviour. During the conversation, Sandra realised that in Indian culture, where gender imbalances are so distinct, it’s often the case that a woman would need to come across with ‘more steel’ than in British culture. I’ve found that to be the case from Italy to the Middle East.

Much of this comes from three non-verbal cues:

1) direct and prolonged eye contact;
2) depth of voice and
3) physical commitment e.g. strong gestures rather than fidgeting

Unfortunately, people will be unlikely to tell you what action to take as this is intangible to them: they’re left with an impression of how you come across.  Conversations are at risk of becoming personal.  For example, using more restrained body language may leave others thinking you’re ‘cold’.

In the case of Sandra and Naz, a greater understanding of cross cultural differences and how they play out vocally and physically, means that the conversation is pulled away from personality and more into the impact of culture on behaviour. More importantly, the discussion explored how the cultural disparity could be bridged.

It’s your choice whether you adapt to another culture, but finding someone who can help you through the cross-cultural maze will allow you to get your message across and keep relationships bubbling away at the same time. This is where conversational skills and interpersonal communication skills can take into consideration cultural differences to enhance your business relationships.

Your Action

  1. Sometimes, it’s about personality and not culture. You’ll have more of an idea if you go to Hofstede’s Country Comparison, that will give you the lowdown on the cultures you’re working with, right here.
  2. Need more guidance?  Make an appointment with me here and let’s chat through it. Your communication issues could be more about personality or process. So let’s look at where the blocks are and see how you can have more joyful and rewarding interactions with people, finding a communication course that will work for you.

This article was originally published in April 2015 and was updated in December 2023.

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