One of the challenges of working across borders is that certain behaviours and styles of communication and body language may not have the same meaning.
For example in countries such as Malaysia the etiquette for shaking hands is a soft hand to demonstrate respect; conversely in Australia a soft handshake can be interpreted as a lack of respect, sign of disinterest, weakness and insincerity. Our mental antenna goes up and we start to look for evidence to support these initial impressions. Are we going to find evidence to support our initial impressions? Most likely yes! The person more than likely will do or say something that will support these impressions. Our biases come to the surface. For example, at the conclusion of a meeting you may be thinking to yourself – “That soft handshake reinforced my initial perceptions. I knew I couldn’t trust him/her.” All of these interpretations can be made from a simple handshake.
I advise clients to not squeeze the hand. Often their response is “but you can tell so much about a person by their handshake.” Think about this for a moment. Is this a universal truth or is it culturally bound? When we interpret behaviours we tend to compare them based on our own cultural practices because we are familiar with them.
There are so many subtle cultural nuances. I had a coaching client from Nigeria who would ask me questions such as, how long do you look at someone in the eye, when does a look become a stare? Have you ever thought about this? My guess is probably no. Conversely, if you are in cultural environments where eye contact should be avoided, how would you know how much is too much?
In countries such as Australia if we go to a bar with friends and colleagues the norm is an unspoken assumption and practice of taking turns to buy the rounds of drinks. We don’t discuss this. It doesn’t matter if you are a guest or not, generally it is an equitable practice where payment of the drinks is shared equally. So imagine this scenario that was shared by one of my clients. He had an Indian manager visiting the Australian office. My client invited him out for a drink after work. My client brought all of the rounds of drinks and was annoyed and irritated that it wasn’t reciprocated. My clients’ internal dialogue was telling him ‘this guy is tight, not generous and has no sense of sharing’. The following day at work he requested a report that wasn’t delivered on time. The thought processes of my client were, not only is he tight with his money, he is also unprofessional and unreliable. This example demonstrates how one misinformed behaviour can lead to inaccurate perceptions and interpretations. The perception of the Indian manager would have been ‘I am the guest, you are the host therefore you pay. I won’t offend you by offering to buy a drink, and when you come to India I will take you out and I will pay because you are the guest and I am the host.’
It is useful to have a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable raising certain conversation topics but communication and cultural awareness and knowledge can be improved immensely when people can pluck up the courage to raise the uncomfortable, awkward conversations.
The questions that we need to be thinking about are:
- How can I develop flexibility and cultural agility?
- How can I learn the important behaviours and values of the cultures that I am working across?
- How can I understand what are the things in my culture that are important; and what impact do they have when I am dealing with people of different cultures?