How to adapt your behaviour across cultures

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 up to strangers if:

a) you express your love of the antelope;

b) you know all 20 words for rock and

c) 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, misunderstanding abound.

 

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 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 is French and Andy was American had much to do with the conflict of management style.

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 Presentations 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 50’s 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:

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 the families: children, partners, fiancés: even a dog turned up with the crowd.  Ferdy was not expected this and felt that the boundaries of professionalism had been breached.

The Russian web developers I’ve worked with, will be very guarded about how there thoughts in a group but be open and friendly in 121s, 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 U.K., it’s more like ‘We’ve only got 5 minutes left. Could you make it quick?’   New York will be 5 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 tourists, 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.  By this, 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.

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
3) physical commitment e.g. strong gestures rather than fidgeting

 

However, when you’ve put your foot out of sync with culture, you won’t always know. When people do make their dissatisfaction clear, they can’t always tell you explicitly what you’ve done to so offend.

The case of Sandra and Naaz shows how an understanding of cross cultural differences means that the conversation is pulled away from personality and more into the impact of culture on behaviour.

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.

 

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’ll 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: 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.

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