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8 Tips for Surviving Communication Culture Shock

Credit: istockphoto.com/JohnnyGreig

It’s a common problem: You arrive at an overseas post or international conference with big plans and a busy timetable, only to be frustrated.

It’s not you. It’s not them. It’s a lack of understanding of how to operate in a world with different communication approaches.

According to the 2018 “International Business Travelers Survey,” the U.S., China, Germany, the U.K. and France are the top five most common business travel destinations. The survey, conducted by global consultancy Mercer, shows that you’ll likely have to navigate several very different cultures in your business travel.

“Cultural shock is real,” says Karen Mathre, director of global coaching at a medical technology company with offices in 150 countries. “You can embrace the unknown or fight it. You’ll be more successful if you embrace the unknown as the path to a new normal.”

Mathre and other global culture coaches explain that countries vary from “low context” to “high context” in how they communicate, lead, schedule, persuade, evaluate and make decisions.

Activate your curiosity, not your judgment. If your mindset is no one’s way is wrong or bad, you’re more likely to get a positive conclusion.” —Karen Mathre, director of global coaching at a medical technology company with offices in 150 countries

Low-context societies—including the U.S.—tend to be blunt and task- and clock-minded, with a focus on short-term goals, according to Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map. Their business execs may criticize a person in front of others, unlike the common practice in China, Japan, India and other high-context societies. High-context countries typically place greater value on relationships and long-term goals by being more diplomatic than direct, softening criticism and looking to the boss for guidance.

These are, of course, generalizations, but they can help guide your approach. With that foundation, here are eight tips from Mathre and other global coaches on how to succeed when working across cultures:

1. Prepare before you go.

Before your trip, talk to those familiar with your destination and study the country’s media, Mathre says. “How they highlight news and talk about your industry is very informative.”

You may also want to explore the Cultural Orientations Indicator developed by language-learning company Berlitz. This evaluation tool puts your own professional style around interaction, thinking and sense of self into context compared to other cultures.

2. Assume positive intent.

“Activate your curiosity, not your judgment,” Mathre says. “If your mindset is no one’s way is wrong or bad, you’re more likely to get a positive conclusion.”

3. Double-check translations.

Even slight variations in word choice can quickly go haywire. “I ordered a hot dog in Norwegian and was handed a plastic bag,” says Mathre. “When you’re a tourist, that’s a minor inconvenience. But when you’re negotiating business, take extra time to know you’re on the same page, or you risk an unexpected outcome.”

4. Know presentation style can vary.

Mathre remembers when she and an overseas colleague were creating a slide deck. “Each time it came to me, I’d move the conclusions to the front, and each time it went to her, she’d move them to the end. We had different ways to receive and trust information.” In the end, they compromised, merging approaches.

5. Realize cultures operate on different clocks.

While Americans often prize speed and timeliness, in Latin America and Asia, personal relationships are highly valued and prioritized. As a result, deal-making may require multiple meetings in those cultures, says Kari Heistad, founder and CEO of Culture Coach International.

Jeff Raz, author and communication consultant at Stand & Deliver, notes that a wedding scheduled for 2 p.m. in Mexico might start at 4:30. “But if you show up at 4:30 for a 2 p.m. American wedding, the food will be gone and they’ll hate you forever. We may see it as, ‘I’m on time and you’re late.’ They may see it as ‘You’re so uptight and ruled by a clock.’”

6. Know that feedback styles can be worlds apart.

Generally, the French, Dutch, Russians and Israelis tend to use blunt feedback, The Culture Map notes. Americans might admonish someone in front of colleagues, but they’d likely couch the blow by starting with encouragement. On the other end of this culture map are Indonesians, Japanese, Koreans and Saudis, who would be more likely to criticize in private, using mild terms and burying the lead, per the book.

7. Authority varies.

In addition to the style of feedback, the person who delivers it also varies. While many Americans welcome feedback from any colleague, Chinese workers often look to leaders.

“A hierarchy can create a task-oriented, here’s-how-we-do-it approach, versus other cultures thinking that rules can be broken to preserve relationships,” Mathre says.

8. Follow your cultural guide’s lead.

Hired to teach American-style theater in China, Raz had an easy time communicating through his translator, until Raz suggested practicing in a public park. “The translator seemed to have trouble translating my words.” So Raz continued indoors. “I’d suggested a cultural no-no, rehearsing in public, but the translator wasn’t about to say no to me, the teacher. She just stalled until I figured it out.” Picking up on the translator’s cues allowed Raz to make the right move.

Navigating work in a new culture can offer obstacles but also abundant opportunities for learning and growth. By embracing the challenges and keeping an open mind, you can set yourself up for business success, no matter where in the world you land.

Michele Meyer

Michele Meyer is a freelance B2C and B2B content marketing writer on fashion, retail, health, marketing and branding. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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