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How to work better across cultures

When dealing with foreign clients the best way to avoid misunderstandings is to begin with face-to-face contact

Invading tribes, religious reformation, post-Empire diversity, television and the internet have quietly shaped our values and beliefs.

Factors shaping other countries are different. Their history, politics, geography and economics are unique to them and form deep, but invisible, differences.

When working with colleagues overseas, how we choose to communicate is key. Getting it right can lead to more profit, better relationships and a reduced failure rate.

Direct culture, as found in Germany, the Netherlands or America, can withstand direct communications - blunt, to the point, with a minimum of courtesy. In China or Russia this approach, in the absence of a strong relationship, could spell disaster.

In construction today, we increasingly need to manage relationships remotely. Many cultures expect fact-to-face meetings. It takes time to establish common ground, trust and a personal bond. This normally involves visiting them and spending social time together.

In the absence of that, video conferencing, “Second Life” Avatars or Skype with a webcam give more information due to using images. However, the human elements of eating and drinking together are missing.

Mind your language

Apart from picking the right medium, we need to be mindful of our language. Do not assume your British interpretation of “urgent”, “profit”, “quality” or “on time” translates. The way we read between the lines, our shades of meaning and our opposites with implied meanings confuse. When a manager says, “Can I suggest” with a menacing tone they are not making a suggestion.

So how can we combine communication and cultural awareness to get results?

Firstly we must start a relationship. Normally a face-to-face meeting is needed.

  • Don’t use indirect language.

  • Take time to establish a working knowledge of the other team’s culture.

  • Establish who the decision makers and influencers are.

  • Choose how and what to communicate carefully.

Experimenting with a combination of technology and words, we see what is effective in building relationships and which phrases do and don’t work. With raised cultural awareness and a clever use of technology we can be powerful, have integrity and communicate our needs effectively.

Matthew Hill is intercultural coach and trainer at Farnham Castle International Briefing & Conference Centre.