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Different national cultures may view the same thing in very different ways thus communication can engender or distance you from potential clients or partners. Here are 10 ways that will help you create strong sustainable relationships with peers, partners, team members or clients from other cultures or nationalities.
- Learn about how your values, attitudes, behaviors and communication style may be perceived by someone from another culture, e.g. they may interpret humor as not taking things seriously. Seek feedback from the people you work with or from a friendly party in the other culture.
- Relate to each person as an individual and not as a stereotype. Understanding the values, expectations and beliefs that drive behaviors in different cultures should inform your actions towards an individual, not direct them. Culture doesn’t determine anything, but it shapes everything.
- Understand who can make what decisions as it may be at a different level than in your own organization; be done more quickly or more slowly. In cultures where status is of more importance than in the UK or the U.S., such as Spain/Italy/Greece/France, decisions are made nearer the top of an organization. In cultures where status counts for less, such as Sweden/Norway/Finland/Netherlands, decisions may be made at lower levels. Decisions may also be made more by individuals (e.g. U.S. and Australia) rather than through collective decision making (e.g., Japan).
- Identify if their management style is more typically masculine or feminine―assertive and competitive or modest and caring respectively This will affect the style of negotiation and the type of relationship. An assertive approach in times of conflict may be greeted positively in the U.S. but negatively in Sweden. In a more feminine culture such as Sweden, a modest approach at a presentation may be viewed very positively, whereas in the U.S. the same presenter may be viewed as lacking commitment, passion or drive.
- Understand if they have a short-term or long-term view as this will affect the way and the speed at which projects are assessed, justified and decisions made. Asian cultures take a much longer view than many Western cultures, e.g. the period over which a project is justified.
- Identify their need for structure and certainty as this may vary and affect the level of control, definition, risk taking and governance. Agree on a common working approach that balances the differences, e.g. you may have to provide much more detail and information for a partner than you yourself would need for a decision to be taken.
- Develop your empathy skills and show people you are making every effort to see and feel things as they do. Think of yourself as a "translator" of your own culture and protocols. Making a small change such as greeting people in their own language or showing knowledge of their culture and its customs will be seen positively.
- If you are unsure what is appropriate, be more structured and have more explicit communication rather than less. Remember that this is not everyone’s preferred style, e.g. the Japanese have a much more implicit communication style than the British, but will still find it easier to filter too much information than having to ask you to expand and elucidate. When communicating remember to speak clearly and at an appropriate speed and level of language, but never patronize.
9. Ask each person how they would like to be addressed and treated. Master the correct pronunciation and spelling of the names of people you work with. Talk to them about their expectations and how you can respect their position and the value they add.
10. Assume nothing―a smile and handshake are not necessarily an agreement, “yes” can mean “no”, unsmiling may not mean unfriendly, silence may not mean disagreement. Ask questions and be ready to be flexible. It is much easier to change your own behaviors than influence someone else’s.
Editor's note: 3,4,5 & 6 are Based on the work of Geert Hofstede who identifies five dimensions along which national cultures differ.
Donnie MacNicol is director of management consultancy Team Animation and Chair of the Association for Project Management People Specific Interest Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.