by Marc Anderson

Opening Up Your Cubicle to Value the Differences of Cultures Around You

A businesswoman delivering an inspiring speech from the podium at a seminar

Everybody’s got a different way of telling a story – and has different stories to tell. Keith Richards (English musician, singer, songwriter and founding member of the English rock band the Rolling Stones)

Let me tell you about a story. It’s a story I heard about a United States businessman, S. Margolis, who was giving a business presentation to some credit card executives in Shanghai. He was preparing his equipment and while doing so, a picture of his family appeared on the screen for about 20 seconds. Margolis noticed the room got very quiet. He lost his confidence and wished he knew a way to gain it back. It was too late. After the presentation, a colleague from China informed him that displaying multiple children in a country that allowed a single child per family was “potentially insulting”.

It may make sense for business travelers to learn proper business behavior before their trips to China.  Margolis also learned that developing personal relationships is important for securing a business deal. He claimed that it is important to understand the culture in which you work. This includes where you work and with whom you work with.

It is impossible to discuss all of the dimensions of business behavior around the world. The best advice is to be aware that there will be differences and to be accepting of these differences. The second thing to realize is that it is important to have some knowledge about the culture. You can read some books or do some online research. You could take a language or cultural class. You could arrange to meet some natives of that country who are living in your own country, etc.

And the last piece of advice is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”… In other words, it is important to embrace the other culture to the extent that you are open-minded. Be flexible. Accept. Be willing to follow a different culture.

This article is a continuation of a recent article, How Culture Affects Business. I will address some additional areas regarding culture to help you in your business pursuits. These include: entertaining and socializing/gift giving; calendars and holidays; language; cultural assumptions/ethics/political correctness; business organization/management style and leadership/business relationships; and work expectations/time management.

Entertaining and socializing/ gift giving

Entertaining and socializing is important in most cultures. Engaging in social interactions with colleagues allows you to get to know each other and to build relationships. There may be informal company get-togethers during the week or at the end of the workweek on Fridays. Some companies have informal breakfast gatherings, birthday celebrations or holiday parties. There may be an end of the year company party or picnic, too.

Some companies have different activities planned outside of the workday for their staffs. There might be opportunities for volunteer work or for health/fitness-related activities as a team from your company. The important thing to remember is to try to involve yourself with the company and your colleagues and be seen as a contributing member, a team player.

In many countries, it is widely acceptable to take a new business acquaintance out to eat at a restaurant.  In some countries, it is expected that if you are treated the first time, you should pick up the bill the next time. At least you could offer to do so.  If you are a male inviting a female, she may feel more comfortable if you bring your wife (if you are married) or another female colleague along as well.

If someone is visiting and staying in a hotel, it is best to spend some time with them (or at least offer to do so) during the evening hours. You could call the hotel and check on them, too, as a courtesy.

After you have developed a relationship with any business acquaintance, it is a good idea to keep in touch. This could mean a phone call once in a while, a text message or email, or possibly a face-to-face visit if you are in the vicinity.  It is also important to remember them on local holidays and to pass on good wishes, possibly via a post card, email, or phone call.

In Canada, time with family and friends most often takes priority over socializing with colleagues after work hours or on weekends.  It is important to realize and accept this common cultural practice. In the United States, working late after hours and on weekends is acceptable. Extended work hours may limit the time to socialize with colleagues, customers, and family members. It is still appropriate to ask if the person wants to do so and so with you or go somewhere, but just respect what the person chooses to do.

In some cultures, socializing after work hours with your colleagues is expected. You should spend time observing the so-called practices to get an idea of what is the common practice. It is also helpful to have a close friend you can confide in and help steer you in the right direction and to explain these unwritten social norms. It is equally important to see what is important in the workforce and not to change what has been a practice valued by those who have been in the company long before you came.

In many countries, you do not give a private gift to those in management. However, a group gift from a department or from an entire staff is acceptable. On the other hand, it is usually acceptable for you to give a few gifts to your closest associates.  Gifts are generally valued more for the act of giving than the actual gift. However, you still need to select the gift carefully. It is best to read up on that particular culture before purchasing a specific gift.

One important thing to remember is to be gracious. If you don’t understand what to do in any given situation, you can always politely ask.

Calendars and Holidays

When you do business with other countries or with people from different nationalities in your native country, it is important to understand about their calendars and holidays. You want to be respectful of their national and religious days of importance. You want to try to understand the meaning behind these holidays and special observances so you know what is important to them. You need to know the working day holidays so you don’t plan business on days that are officially off when doing business with other countries. It is never a good idea to make assumptions about someone’s religion based on where they live, etc. There can be people of a religious minority living in most any country so be aware of that possibility and be accepting of that, too.

Language

There are over 400 million speakers of English as a first language in the world and another 400 million ESL speakers in the world. Yet there are 700 million people who speak one of the dialects of Chinese along with 300 million Spanish speakers and nearly 200 million speakers of Arabic and Hindi. But 75% of the world’s communication (mail, telexes and cables) are in English; 80% of the information stored on computers is in English; and over 50% of the world’s technical and scientific periodicals are written in English.

However, it is important to remember that many people who do not know English and who attempt to use it may make mistakes. That’s okay. Mistakes are valuable to learning. There needs to be acceptance for others who are learning and using English. Be sensitive to those who are using ESL and their word choice and tone in both day to day conversation and in written work.

Likewise, if English is not your first language, be sensitive to others around you. You don’t want to offend anyone. If you want your listeners to understand you, don’t use the latest slang and idioms, be careful of your choice of humor, and don’t swear. Speak slowly and clearly. Pause often. Try to be confident and believe in yourself.

A suggestion for everyone is to learn a few words of the language of the country you are going to visit and of any foreign visitor/employee you will meet or work with. Know how to pronounce their name and use their title appropriately.

Cultural assumptions/ethics/political correctness

One of the most important things to realize is that your way to work is not the only way. It is not a good idea to look upon those who view the way of work differently as being difficult or stubborn.

Be aware that people in different cultures have different opinions about time. Some cultures expect promptness while others believe that being 10 minutes late for work is acceptable.  In some cultures, a priority is to deal with immediate issues opposed to planning and long-range projects. In some cultures relationships take precedence over schedules. In some cultures, employees work on many tasks at one time. In contrast, there are cultures where one task is completed before the next one is begun.

In some counties, compromise is recognized as a valuable tool in the decision-making process. In other countries, compromise is looked upon negatively ad is seen as a sign of weakness. In some countries, positive reinforcement and praise are used by managers to encourage workers. In other countries, it is routine to point out only the negative work traits.

Nancy Adler writes in International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, “Assume difference until similarity is proven.” This means that what we think is “right” or “important” or “natural” in one country may not be the same in another. Don’t assume! In other words, when you work with individuals and/or companies from foreign countries, take the time to spell out what you really mean. This goes a long way in building a good working relationship so there are fewer misunderstandings.

Employees and employers from different countries will prioritize different behaviors.  With a variety of behaviors it is important to be flexible so as not to cause bad feelings. For example, in some countries action is seen as important. In others, it is better to wait and spend more time making a decision, etc.

In Canada and the United States, most people think everyone should follow the same rules and that no one is above the law. In other countries, this might not be the case and there may be differences allowed or more leniencies offered to certain people based on status, family background, etc.

It is good manners not to say something that may intentionally hurt or offend someone or a group of people. Everyone is deserving of consideration and courtesy so be respectful of gender, race, sexual preference, and physical/mental challenges, etc. If you are unsure if something is politically correct to talk about or how you should mention something, consult a reference guide as it is difficult to keep up with the latest trends and impossible to know what is “correct” in every situation.

Business organization/management style and leadership/business relationships

Be aware that even within the same culture, there can be vast differences in a business organization, management style, and within leadership and business relationships.  For example, in Canada there usually is less competition in businesses than in the United States.  In French-speaking Canada there is more of an emphasis on rules and hierarchical organizations compared to English-speaking companies.

In the United States, hierarchies are clear. Decision-making processes are well-defined. There are written rules and set procedures to follow. Matrix organization is common in which people report to more than one boss. There may be a combination of direct reporting and a secondary, more indirect reporting relationship.  There are a variety of structures used in businesses so it is important to understand the organizational structure of the business you work in and the one in which you also have business dealings with.

Regarding personal relationships in business, in Canada, it is important to have a pleasant personality with good social skills. However you are ultimately judged on your job performance. In the United States, business and personal feelings are kept separate. Legal agreements are important. Business relationships are friendly, but may not be lasting. The success of the business may come before individual needs and value.

Work expectations/time management

The best bet is to be punctual. Some cultures and foreign workers will not value this trait as much as others so don’t expect everyone to have the same view.

In Canada, the business breakfast is less popular than the business lunch.  In the United States, employees often choose to work straight through lunch or eat at their desk to use their time more efficiently. Breakfast meetings are held for the same reason:  to be more efficient at work.

In general, people from different cultures use their time on the job in different ways.  Be understanding about different viewpoints and don’t think there is just one way or your way is the “best”.

If you are truly open-minded you will see that some of the ways you work (your expectations and management style) may be seen as unusual by those from a different country.

___________________________________________________

Everyone does have a different story to tell. I would love to hear yours. How about sharing a story about working abroad or working with someone from a foreign country using the comments section below this blog post?

If you have questions about learning English and especially about online ESL programs and need ways to propel you forward in your English study, I will be glad to help you with that, too.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.