Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cultural understanding when traveling on business

I never thought I'd recommend that the comments on a post are worth reading as much as the post itself but then I read this excellent article: "How not to be a cultural knucklehead in a global business world"

In the post Pamela Slim gives some great points which are worth noting if you have to deal with people from different cultures on a regular basis or travel a lot for business (or for holidays!). The many many comments on the post also include some great tips and they're definitely worth reading.

I'm going to try to avoid copying the points already made in that post and the comments but I'll add my two cent here.

There are three ways in which cultural insensivity can cause you problems:
  • You inadvertently offend people;

  • You just come across as stupid or ignorant; or

  • You live up to your own national stereotype.

For the first one, I think the fundamental point for dealing with people from other cultures is to be sensitive to them and pay attention for any cues that you're offending them (something I myself have been guilty of not doing diligently in the past!). Being sensitive to other people is a good point, especially because the same things that might get you into trouble with someone from a different culture might also rub someone from your own culture the wrong way too.

Normally people will give the benefit of the doubt to someone if they are a foreigner, so I wouldn't worry about offending people all the time, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

For the second point I've learnt a few rules in the past few years of dealing with people from different countries:

  • Never think, talk, or act as if you know more about someone else's country than they do. This might sound obvious but if you've been in a country a while or have read something about the politics there you might start inadvertently sounding off about it and give the impression that you think the person from that country doesn't know this stuff already! With politics the general rule about avoiding politics in conversations applies anyway.. you just don't want to go there :o)

  • People from any country don't always like to spend an entire conversation (or even part of it) talking about their country, their language etc.. usually they just want a normal human conversation about business or whatever.

  • Similar to point one, but never contradict what someone says about their own country, even if you feel it's wrong or inaccurate. Again this comes off as sounding like you think you know more than them about their own country.

If some or all of this sounds like basic normal conversational tips that's because a lot of multicultural "etiquette" is simply good polite behaviour and good old fashioned judging of people on their merits rather than on their dress or nationality etc.

Sometimes you can't help with your ignorance. You may meet someone from a small town in England that you've never heard of before or couldn't place on a map. Some people do get offended if you know very little about or have never heard of the town or country that they're from. In those situations whether or not the person is offended comes down to that person rather than anything you can do.

The third point is something I've come across myself before and it doesn't relate to insensitivity towards other cultures but rather a lack of awareness about your own. It usually only shows itself when someone from another culture picks you up on something you do or say. An example of this from my experience is when I was giving a class in New York last year, we'd have a morning break and a late afternoon break. On the second day of training the class pointed out to me that I kept saying we'll have a "tea break" when "over here we have coffee breaks." It was also pointed out that I used the phrase "rabbit in the headlights" versus the American "deer in the headlights". These differences were harmless but sometimes you may use a phrase people don't understand without even recognising it or your nationality may carry stereotypes or impressions in peoples' minds that you're not aware of or don't understand the cultural implications of.

Another issue is language. As a native speaker, if you are speaking to people whose first language is not the language you'll be speaking in, then it pays to check that they can understand you. The first time I had to speak to a class of people whose first language was not English I was asked to speak slower by one of the class. On the other hand, it's a delicate balance because you do not want to come off as a condescending LOUD AND SLOW talker. Some people may also find it offensive that you asked if they could understand you ok in the first place ("Are you implying my English is less than fluent!?") I look for the universal facial expression of incomprehension which is usually a good indicator that they either don't get the content you're speaking about or don't understand what you're saying at a linguistic level :o)

I didn't take offence at the New York comments which goes to show that walking on eggshells is not always necessary. Some people will be more easily offended than others. Sometimes you can't help offending people, for instance I had no idea that some people from Latin America find it offensive that Europeans only called citizens of the USA "Americans" until a Mexican friend pointed it out to me one time. What matters in those cases is how you can recover. Like I said above, most people will give foreigners the benefit of the doubt and just like "It's my first day" it's an excuse that works as long as you don't fall back on it more than once..

In summary (as much as one can summarise a rambling post :o)), I don't think that multi-cultural etiquette extends far beyond respecting other people, giving them their space, and not applying your preconceptions to them. I think it also involves a lot of self-awareness of your own cultural bias which only comes from interacting with a lot of different cultures over time, it's not something easily picked up from a book (nothing beats those "woah" moments when you realise something you took for granted was a part of your culture and not a universal thing).

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