Five Ways to Communicate Globally in Business
1. Don’t assume those in different countries communicate the same way that you do.
Just because employees are part of the same organization doesn’t mean that they have the same mindsets and rules for communicating. Different cultural assumptions about communicating could be a sticking point in managing others and accomplishing goals. For example, there are big differences between those who communicate using direct communication versus those who communicate indirectly. Those who are most comfortable communicating indirectly could feel threatened by direct communication they are not used to. It’s a good idea, therefore, to get to know the other culture’s modes of communication before jumping into managing employees in a different country.
2. Make sure that you don’t inadvertently cause your employees to lose face.
In relations between members of different cultures, when a person is slighted, communication may become defensive. Worse, when a person has lost face, extremely intense emotions may result that could lead to communication completely breaking down affecting one’s ability to function. Although individuals from the same culture may share many connections and come to communicate again after face loss, this may not occur with individuals in formal intercultural relationships.
In short, when people lose face they don’t recuperate so easily. Trust is an important commodity when it comes to employee compliance. Once someone feels you will not have their face in mind, they will be doubly cautious in their encounters with you – meaning that they may hide information from you or not engage in the same way as they would if they feel comfortable.
3. Become familiar with the unspoken rules and rituals practiced in countries other than your own.
Some cultures are more ritualistic than others. In particular, cultures that avoid uncertainty are way more likely to follow protocol and expect you to. There may also be other hidden rituals of which one may not be aware such as a particular idiosyncratic way that meetings are carried out down to who begins the meeting, where people are supposed to sit and even who is “allowed” to speak at meetings. Of course there are other cultural rituals such as the exchanging of business cards and greetings which in some cases involves a kiss or a bow.
If managers are not well-versed in another culture’s rituals, they could lose credibility with others in their firm who see that their visiting manager has not adequately understood the workings of their culture. It is best to request an agenda of meetings with counterparts abroad and follow the protocol of the host culture.
4. When managing be aware that not all employees appreciate being empowered with decisions making.
As members of individualistic cultures we assume that others appreciate being consulted about decisions like we do. Although U.S. managers like to self-promote and be given autonomy to run things as they see fit, those from other cultures may prefer to defer to their superiors’ decision making. Not only does deference show respect to their superiors, in many cases, the responsibility for a decision also lies with the superior who made the decision thus freeing employees from the accountability that could be face-threatening to them.
Thus, in some cultures, sticking out is particularly face-threatening. Consequently, they try not to distinguish themselves but instead try to blend into and to promote their group image. It is therefore advised to become aware of the present management practices of subsidiaries of international firms before managing them.
5. Though informality may seem to ingratiate you to those from the U.S., it is a good idea to communicate more formally during initial meetings.
One rule of thumb is that when one is in doubt, one should be more formal in dealings in with new acquaintances. Formality would include speaking in a subdued tone of voice and behaving in a manner that does not draw attention to oneself because such behavior could be face-threatening to one’s companion. One would also try to avoid informal impolite behaviors such as snapping ones’ fingers at another person and being insistent with waiters. Conservative dress is the safest attire to consider when encountering someone for the first time as well.
Overall when one is trying to manage abroad, it is a good idea to collect information about the culture is when interacting with others abroad. Practicing active listening skills, learning about others and showing extra respect is bound to take managers much further in their business dealings abroad.
Rebecca S. Merkin, author of Saving Face in Business, is Associate Professor at Baruch College CUNY, USA. She has published over twenty peer-reviewed articles on cross-cultural studies of communication and saving face in journals such as the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Cross-Cultural Research, the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, and Intercultural Communication Studies. Prior to academia she worked in management at McKinsey & Company, TPF&C, and Merrill Lynch.