Should We Be “Culture-Blind”?

Last week, we hosted a housewarming party in our new home and hired someone to tend bar. Our friend had told us this gentleman was from Ireland but when we met him, he spoke with a perfect American accent. When I asked him about it, he switched immediately to his natural Irish diction.

I’m always impressed when someone can switch accents so effortlessly, but I was more curious about why he did it. When I probed, Ben confessed that using his Irish pronunciation led to a constant onslaught of tiresome questions. People in the US don’t know a lot about Ireland and the assumptions they make and questions they ask have not been particularly inspiring for him. So Ben said he chooses to avoid them all together.

This conversation got me thinking about the notion of being blind to others’ culture. What does it mean to embrace, honor, and be excited about languages, accents, and cultures? If we aren’t celebrating and embracing our differences in a way that doesn’t have genuine interest or knowledge of the world, should we ignore them and not talk about them? Should we just embrace them as part of the diversity that we live with (particularly in the United States)? Or, should we use them to so that we have richer conversation about other parts of our world?

Ben, the bartender, seemed to prefer that we might interact as if we are “culturally blind.” That is, that we treat all people the same and ignore the differences we may have. That goes a bit against my nature but it’s what I have experienced in the business world, too. For example, a workshop I recently held in Silicon Valley was attended by people from all over the world. The differences in these professionals’ backgrounds were never discussed between them. Working in a melting pot – with diverse cultures, languages, and accents, was nothing new for them in Silicon Valley.

After some reflection, I don’t think the solution (in either case) is to act culturally blind. Instead, I think it’s time for us to become savvier in the ways that we operate in a globalized world while at home or in the workplace.This means developing a global mindset or truly having the desire, knowledge, & skills to operate effectively in today’s world—in business and elsewhere.

The Najafi Global Mindset Institute developed a three-pronged framework with “capital” or “competencies” to define global mindset. I used this framework below to suggest tips to help you on your way to developing your global mindset.

Intellectual capital: Be knowledgeable about the world. Know where countries are and what cities there are named. Learn how things work, logistics, politics, and how they approach business dealings.

Psychological capital: Check in with yourself. Are you open and willing to learn about others? Do you have interest in exploring or learning about cultures or languages?

Social capital: Obtain specific skills in diplomacy and empathy. Learn about how diverse cultures prefer to be communicated with.

If we switch our minds to think in a more global context, our lives will be richer, our businesses more successful, and people won’t feel they have to hide their accents from us. To learn more about global mindset, view this video.

Why Learn Another Language?

If you plan to conduct business abroad regularly, it’s important to build and sustain relationships over time. One way to do that is to acquire is the ability to speak another language. An estimated 20% of the world’s population is bilingual. By joining that 20%, you are giving yourself a leg up on the competition!

Why Learning Another Language Matters

Learning another language will help you establish credibility and make you and others feel more comfortable. It will also give you additional insights into the culture and how people make decisions, use technology, or buy products. Being able to understand “filler” words helps you determine when a conversation has transitioned from substantive to polite, yet perhaps inconsequential.

When you can speak another language, you are better prepared for the threads of small talk that will pepper your business discussion. Spanish-speakers, for example, may want to chat about family and friendships. Business partners from Germany may want to discuss current events or local politics. Being able to join the conversation will help you establish authenticity quickly.

Choose Your Second Language Wisely

If you’re working primarily in the US, next to English, Spanish is the number one language to learn. Given our relationship to China, Chinese investment in the US market, and the amount of immigration by Chinese citizens, it wouldn’t hurt to learn Mandarin. Your choice may also be dictated by your career plan or decision to move abroad.

When at all possible, pick a language that you’ll have fun learning, if you like the sound of it and feel good speaking it, you’ll be more successful. Usually when someone speaks more than one language they can pick up other languages easier, especially if they are in the same family, like Italian, Spanish, and French.

Don’t give up, while it’s a bit more difficult for adults to learn and pronounce other languages (because our brains are wired differently) watching TV shows, movies and simply hearing and speaking a foreign language will have you jabbering away in no time.

How Can Someone Get Started?

Just start! There are lots of tools, people to exchange with in your community, and more formal language classes available. Rosetta Stone is a favorite amongst business people. Apps like Duolingo give you access to language-learning in bite-sized modules you can access from your smartphone. Meetup groups where you can practice conversation in your chosen language convene in communities around the US every week. You can thank technology for the fact that you can practice your dialogue via Skype very affordably.

I like Kate Nielson’s reminder to figure out what we intend to use the language for. Business negotiations call for a different type of language learning than recreational travels do.

Although I’ve done business in over 40 countries, I certainly haven’t walked into every conversation with the ability to speak their language fluently. However, in each country, even when I could only muddle through some basic phrases, my business partners were grateful that I tried.

I work extensively with individuals seeking to expand their Cross Cultural Preparedness. Please contact me at melissa@lamsonconsulting.com to discuss how I might help you.

Presenting the Complicated in a Simplified Way

Talk Nerdy to Me

I have had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people on the planet; software developers, aerospace engineers, and robotics specialists. Whether you are selling software, combat avionics systems, or wearable technology, one of your challenges is breaking down the complex into terms that an audience with a range of technical capabilities will understand.

Scientists ask why. Engineers ask how. Customers, however, ask how much it costs and what value the product will bring. When I teach scientists and engineers about understanding their audiences in order to attract investors and close deals, I stress these points:

Speak in User Friendly Terms

Modify the way you present your product to account for varied levels of technical expertise. I don’t mean to imply you should “dumb it down”, but make sure you’re articulating the facts clearly and succinctly. You are looking for the perfect intersection of product information and matching value need your potential joint venture partner has.

Start with three main points in your presentation, research shows that people can only remember three ideas at a time. You can always take more in-depth questions later. It also doesn’t hurt to draw pictures to explain concepts, do a demo or give your audience something to touch and feel.

Calibrate Your Presentation Style

You are not just selling your product. You are selling yourself. People will remember you as much or more than the product itself.

The importance the customer places on you in relation to the attributes of the product varies depending on cultural background and country location.

-In the Middle East or Latin America, potential customers will place more value on knowing and trusting you than on the product itself (at least that will be their FIRST concern). Share more of your personal background and get to them as individuals first.

-In Central and Eastern Europe, the product will be the primary focus but people still want you to come across as credible and interesting. Share your credentials and training to establish trust.

-In the US, you want to amp up your selling persona; American customers are accustomed to more extreme sales tactics. US audiences like showiness, hyperbole, and attention-grabbing strategies.

As this post notes, you have to customize your presentations and your demos. Do the background research to understand the priorities of your audience. You can learn a lot from something as simple as following a potential investor’s LinkedIn profile or Twitter feed.

Network Before and After the Presentation

Be purposeful in planning not just the content of your presentation, but the ways your audience will be able to remain in touch with you. Make sure you leave time after your presentation to talk 1:1 with potential investors.

Package your contact information in such a way that the audience member can easily look you up afterwards. Design a unique QR code, incorporate your social media information on a creative card, do an activity that gives you THEIR information so you can be proactive about follow-up.

High tech products are proliferating the marketplace. If it’s your job to invent one of these products, it may be tempting to stay back at the lab. Applying these simple strategies, along with intelligence and tenacity, will help you get out and share the exciting new developments you’re working on – and get credit for them.

Before an important event, contact Melissa to refine your presentation and presentation style. melissa@lamsonconsulting.com

Creating Meaning in Your Workplace: Part II

A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of my talk with Jenny Tieman, a relationship counselor. We discussed the importance of meaning when it comes to sustaining passion and engagement in our careers; today in Part 2, we’ll talk about how we can transform our professional relationships and even our organizations.

Jenny, today I’d like to talk more about our relationships with clients and colleagues. In romantic partnerships, we choose our partners based on a certain affinity and attraction – but we don’t have that kind of choice in our coworkers and we sometimes have nothing in common with them.

Well, as we discussed earlier, people take their relationships for granted and prioritize everything else. That’s especially true with professional relationships, yet they’re often the ones that need the most work. All too often we focus on project milestones, revenue reports, anticipated scoreboard results. Yet people are the engine that makes those results happen – and if we don’t deal positively and effectively with each other, those deliverables will be impacted.

So what’s your specific advice for fostering good relationships?

First, set your intention to be positive. Resolve to leave any negativity or petty stuff outside the room. Maybe there’s a grudge in the air or a rivalry; put that to the side. Secondly, remember that these people are doing the best they can. Assume positive intent, rather than jumping to negative conclusions. Look at your coworkers as capable and competent people. By focusing on their value, rather than how they’re doing something differently than you might do it, you and the rest of the team are likely to stay connected and committed and achieve better results.

And when someone around you is overwhelmed? Don’t focus on the occasional sharp word or mistake. Instead, see their struggle as a learning opportunity for the organization. Step back and see what needs to change for a smoother and more efficient and productive process. Then talk about a shift in roles from that perspective – not as an attack on the overwhelmed person.

That’s great advice. What about cultural differences? This is where many of my clients want to improve as their companies expand globally.

Over the years, I’ve worked with clients from many cultures – Arabic, Eastern Europe, Central American, just to name a few. And what I’ve found helpful is focusing on what they find beautiful and meaningful in their cultures. By opening that dialogue, we come to an understanding and mutual respect that helps us work together effectively. I’ve found the same principle in cross-cultural workforces – rather than parachuting into a new culture and just focusing on the business at hand, global leaders benefit from finding out what matters to their new colleagues. What are their values, where is the significance and beauty in their lives? That transforms a transactional relationship into a deeper and more productive one.

So how can organizations as a whole benefit from these principles? A few companies are exploring the rewards of mindfulness, but most organizations are still focused on external deliverables and ignore the relationship side of business.

What needs to happen is, corporate culture needs to think past profit. They need to ask themselves, “Why are we doing this?” Because just as people lose sight of who they are in their relationships and careers, companies often lose sight of what they are doing. They become so driven by profit that they develop a sense that nothing else matters. Ask them what they’re about and they can’t tell you. But once they reconnect with their purpose, it alters the way the leadership and the workforce think about their products, their jobs, their brand and their future.

Companies are also catching on to the benefits of adopting a holistic perspective on health. That approach makes people healthier, more positive about work, and they take fewer sick days and bring more creativity to their jobs. There are huge benefits institutionally. Once leaders explore this and see the results, they actually wind up proselytizing to others.

Thanks for the insights, Jenny. You’ve certainly brought a fresh perspective to the conversation around workplace relationships and how we can all experience more meaning and engagement in our careers. Readers, how do you encourage your team to connect with their sense of purpose? What works for you in building positive professional relationships? Please share in the comments.

Tips to Help Build Cross-Cultural Business Skills

Posted on August 20, 2013, by Katie Stouffs

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” – Emily Post (1872-1960)

Long before international business etiquette writer, Terri Morrison, penned Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands (a must-read for any real estate practitioner with global clients), Emily Post, a.k.a. Miss Manners, preached the importance of proper etiquette. Post defined etiquette as a code of behavior based on kindness, respect and consideration for the purpose of helping people get along and avoid conflict. If you are a real estate practitioner who works with international buyers or sellers, or if you are tying to expand your business globally, take heed of Miss Manner’s advice! This definition is a great way to think about cross-cultural business and social skills.

Beyond the everyday good manners you already use in the course of business, when you are working with foreign clients, how can you be sure that your behavior is appropriate? Listed below are some basic cross-cultural do’s and don’ts. These guidelines can help you reduce the risk of making a cultural faux pas.

Saving face: In the business world, brutal honesty (for better or for worse) is often times appreciated.  However, this is not a universal opinion, rather, a western attitude that could unknowingly cause great offense. Allowing others to save face is a valuable cross- cultural skill. As a rule of thumb, never do anything to embarrass another person, either in that person’s eyes, or in the eyes of others. This principle may sound obvious, but in practice, blunders are easy to make, especially if you are working with a buyer who has never purchased property in the U.S. before. For example, if you are talking with a client about title insurance, you may receive blank stares. Indemnity insurance is likely to be a foreign concept to most foreign buyers. Be careful with your explanation. Avoid statements like, “You look confused. Let me clarify”. While your intention is good, this statement could be deemed insulting.

Additionally, you shouldn’t sacrifice your own face, even if your intention is harmless.  For example, if you are showing a home to a foreign client and need to convert feet into meters, don’t joke that you are useless at math. This simple statement could inadvertently tarnish your reputation.

Build the relationship: When you are first introduced to someone, do not try to create an instant friendship. Wait to be invited before you use first names. In many cultures, first meetings are for getting acquainted; don’t expect deals to be signed right away. The pace of “getting down to business” varies from culture to culture.

Talk less, listen more: Respect the role of silence and know when to talk and when to keep quiet. Communicate informatively rather than persuasively. Practice listening with both your ears and your eyes; sometimes nonverbal behavior can be telling. A shrug of the shoulders, a smile, silence− these nonverbal actions may indicate that the other person does not understand. Remember, “yes” does not always mean “I agree.”

Business card etiquette: In some cultures there is substantial etiquette associated with presenting and receiving business cards. As a general rule of practice, always treat business cards respectfully. When someone hands you their card, take the time to look it over. Show respect by commenting positively. Avoid putting the card in your pocket (especially your back pocket) or your wallet.

These are just a few tips that will help you when working with home buyers and sellers from a variety of cultures. Keep in mind that interactions with foreign clients proceed best and lead to successful transactions when you are sensitive to their expectations of business and social behavior. The more you know about your client’s culture, the more effective your interactions will be.

The Intercultural Communication Challenges of Skype Meetings

The Intercultural Communication Challenges of Skype Meetings

My intercultural business clients often enlist my aid to help them improve their Skype meetings. They count on me to provide them with a unique perspective on intercultural communication and want to hear my views about why it is so difficult and dissatisfying for them. From my perspective, the difficulty and dissatisfaction of using Skype to conduct meetings in an intercultural context is not due to the most obvious reasons.

We all know there are technical issues. Depending on the speed of the connections, coupled with the video and audio capabilities of the webcams and microphones, the display and the audio can cut in and out, and can be difficult to hear or visualize. There can be maddening lags, freezes, crashes and any number of unexpected glitches, all of which play havoc with even the most carefully organized meetings. These are not a big issue when using Skype for conversations within our private lives. But even when things go perfectly on the technical side of things within a business context, there are issues that need to be addressed for ensuring successful intercultural meetings.

For example, every language has a tempo. By that I mean, how quickly people speak, how long a time they leave between one sentence and the next, and how long they wait before responding to someone else’s words, varies. In the French language there is typically a slight overlap at the end of a spoken sentence; the next speaker begins before the other has finished. In English, in North America at least, we pause slightly to signal that it’s the other person’s turn to speak. In the Japanese language there are substantially longer pauses between one speaker and another. Such subtle differences can be found in all languages.

This is what I call the tempo, or rhythm, of a language. When the French or Japanese speak English, they bring their rhythms with them. Anglophones who learn other languages maintain their native tempo, as well. I encounter this phenomenon every day with my intercultural clients, accustomed as I am to observing such things. So I can easily understand how these different rhythms cause problems during intercultural Skype meetings, because when there is even the smallest lag during such sessions, our rhythms get disrupted.

When you are speaking your native language, such things are easily overcome. However, when you’re speaking a foreign language, each time you face such a disruption you become distracted from what you were in the middle of saying or hearing. The larger the number of cultures participating in the Skype meeting, the more complicated it becomes. Why?

How Easily Can You Multitask in Your Mind?

What is rarely acknowledged is that when we are speaking our native languages, we are able to multitask in our minds. We listen easily, formulate what we are going to say next, think about what we’re going to have for lunch, generate opinions about the others around us, notice the air temperature in the room, and so on. So what’s another minor distraction like lag?

Simply this. When you are using a second language, it’s impossible to multitask in your mind to the same degree; you have to focus more on listening. So if you don’t hear part of a sentence, then understanding suffers. If you’re distracted by that lack of understanding, it’s then more difficult for you to formulate what you want to say next. And even if you are able to formulate what to say next, the rhythm you are used to is disrupted and you are unsure of when to add a comment or question.

Furthermore, even if you are able to make sense of the partial sentences you’re hearing, can formulate what to say next and jump in at just the right time, there’s the next trap waiting for you. This is the biggest stumbling block for many of my clients: you see yourself while speaking a foreign language. As one client candidly told me, “That is a sight I’d rather not see!”

It’s easier to convince yourself when speaking in person to others that your accent isn’t so bad and the way you form the unfamiliar sounds of a second language doesn’t look weird to your listeners. (Indeed, how many of you who speak a second language dislike leaving a phone message because you don’t want your voice to be recorded in English? I know I prefer not doing so in French.) When using Skype you have to watch yourself looking uncomfortable and unsure while trying to construct a coherent message in another language within a technically challenging context. Frankly, all of us have to have nerves of steel to get through it. As a result, many Skype meetings are conducted without any video. It’s common in such cases to use slow Internet connection speeds as an excuse. But I wonder when I hear that whether it’s not more about a sense of self dignity that we are trying to defend.

Skype is not the villain here. Instead, it simply amplifies things that all of us working within intercultural situations in a language other than our native one face every day. This can result in some uncomfortable conversations but as I say to my clients, “Discomfort goes with the territory.” In turn, they tell me what a relief it is to discuss these issues of difficulty and discomfort so openly. They are rarely discussed at the office, where everyone simply pretends to be confident and comfortable during such meetings, with varying degrees of success.

When this fact of intercultural business communication is finally out in the open, the burden of pretending is lifted. Suddenly everyone can agree about just how awkward it is to function effectively in a foreign language when using Skype. That openness inspires people to be more patient and helpful, and less judgmental of one another. A shift in attitude, along with improved intercultural communication skills, not just an improvement in technology, is what it’s going to take to meet the unprecedented challenges of communicating globally across cultures online.

This post first appeared on sherwoodfleming.com Sherwood Fleming is an intercultural communication seminar leader and author of Dance of Opinions.