Updated: Jun 7, 2020
In a globalized economy more and more business people in America are communicating with organizations and companies from different parts of the world, and as such you should be aware of how social interactions and communication norms vary from country to country. Avoiding social faux pas and understanding expectations gives you a significant advantage when dealing with foreign colleagues and potential clients. Here are some simple tips you can add to your skillset:
Tips for Increasing Your Cultural Fluency
Notice Your Personal Bubble
In the United States, we like our personal space and generally stand about 18 inches away from other people during conversation. In Latin American cultures, as well as India, you will find that gap is much smaller. To ensure your conversation companion feels comfortable in these cultures, you should be aware of the space and try to stand a little closer than you would normally in the US.
Be Comfortable with Silence
Here in the US, we may feel uncomfortable when the conversation lulls, especially in the company of business associates when time and efficiency of communication are vital. In some Asian cultures like China, however, silence is seen as natural and polite, a time for contemplation. When collaborating with people from China, do not feel compelled to always fill the silence, or your contacts may see you as impolite, brash, and impulsive.
Any good business person knows that body language (how we physically present ourselves) is key in any business transaction, but the cues you have adopted for American negotiations may not translate well in other countries. In the United States, for example, we favor a moderate amount of eye contact, some but not too much. Whereas in many Middle Eastern cultures, you will notice that people want more direct eye contact, especially during a business transaction. Here in the United States we are also more physically reserved, preferring less body contact, but in some European countries, especially Italy, you will find that business people are more open and physically expressive. You may see a similar dynamic in some Latin American countries such as Mexico, and some Asian countries like Taiwan.
We all know that important business negotiations often happen over a meal, which means you should be aware of the different dining customs that exist in other cultures. In Sweden, for example, you should always look into the eyes of the person receiving the toast and say skohl, whereas in Russia you should not start imbibing until the first toast has been offered. Did you warm up your singing voice before the meal? In South Korea, you may be expected to sing karaoke after dinner.
Why Cultural Sensitivity is so Important
These are just a few of the communication and social norms you should consider, and the norms you adopt for a transaction will vary from region to region. Cultural sensitivity may seem like a nice idea, but does it actually make a difference in practice? Countless studies have shown that effective communication practices lead to a greater level of success for businesses, while poor communication often results in wasted time, lost profit, and missed opportunities. Being aware of and sensitive to cultural differences makes you a more versatile and competitive negotiator, and here at The Citadel, we can help you improve your cultural fluency to prepare you for the unique and exciting challenges the modern business person must face.
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