You are going to meet an important client who promises a big contract on your lead product but feel uncomfortable about it. You have met him a couple of times but there is something about your communication that doesn‘t work and you can‘t describe it.
I know this feeling because I experienced it myself. In international business people from different cultures meet and have only one thing in common: the language they speak - English. But they speak English embedded in their cultural backgrounds. This can lead to misunderstandings which you can first detect with that uncomfortable feeling.
There are still many unwritten rules between people from different cultural backgrounds. Unwritten rules are, for example, things in a culture that are invisible like values, education, beliefs, attitude about time, etc.
And let me also share what I learned from these experiences, which caused a transformation in my communication, behavior and confidence in my business relationships.
Greeting or too much information?
Let‘s start with a simple example from my first weeks in Ireland. When I was meeting colleagues they always greeted me with: “How are you?“ Then I greeted them and gave them my honest answer about how I was feeling. But oddly enough nobody seemed to be interested in it. Instead they just gave me a strange look or laughed at me with a short comment like “Alright or interesting“. It made me feel very uncomfortable and showed me that I was an outsider. It was especially embarrassing before an important business conversation with my supervisor or line manager.
After a while I was confused and asked my colleagues why they were replying like that. And I learned that I should reply with:“How are you?“. Only when someone asked me the second time I could give a reply about my feelings but, please, not too detailed. This seemed superficial for me because we do it differently in Germany. Nevertheless, I got used to it after some time. It was a very important experience because for business conversation it is crucial to get the beginning right. Otherwise people might just walk away from you e.g. at a trade fair. It also shows that you know the ropes and you make people feel comfortable having a conversation with you.
Chit-chat is not wasted time in business
Another example is small talk. During my first month in my job I couldn’t understand why my colleagues would ask me about what I had for lunch and happily chat about their lunch. It didn‘t really matter to me and I was wondering how one could waste time talking about things like this. Or worse when they started talking about the weather.
I wanted to find out about this chit-chat as I heard it everywhere, so I watched the people around me how they seemed to enjoy small talk. What were they talking about? How did they make small talk? I found out that they spoke about topics like:
· free time activities: What did you do last weekend?
· family: Who belongs to your family and how important is it for you?
· sports: What is your favourite sport? What do you like about it?
But didn‘t really share facts as I was used to from my culture. For example: I moved house last weekend. In Germany you would talk about what size exactly your new apartment has, how much it costs, how it is equipped, how old the house is, how many parties live there etc.
I began to practice small talk with my colleagues and the effort was worth it. This small talk often leads to longer and more meaningful conversations about all sorts of different topics.
I decided to try making small talk before meetings, after lunch and while queuing for the bus. It was a bit strange at the beginning but when I had practiced a bit I truly liked it and noticed that I started to forge better relationships with my colleagues.
With intercultural communication, the amount of information you share depends on how much you already know about your colleagues
My last example is about the way we speak highlighted with the situation leave-taking. When I left a party or my friends/ colleagues in a pub I said goodbye and why I had to leave. These were reasons like I had to leave because I had to get up early the next morning or catch the last dart (Public Transport in Dublin). It was pretty normal for me to do it that way because I come from Germany which is a low-context culture and that’s the way we speak German. In this situation in German, I would explain it meant that I had to explain my leave-taking which one shouldn't do in a high-context culture - English. I often received some strange looks and nobody seemed to be interested in my reasons for leaving. Instead they kept on enjoying themselves. I wondered again what was going on here and why people reacted like that.
Again I decided to watch how the people around me were behaving when leaving a party or pub. I noticed that they just said that it was a grand night out and they have got to go now. Then they would say their goodbyes and leave. Nobody mentioned a reason why they had to leave. Although I didn‘t understand why there was this difference from then on I also just said goodby and left.
Some years later I learned that this difference in intercultural communication exists because English is a high-context culture and German a low context culture. In a high-context culture you don‘t have to explicitly say everything and also must read between the lines. Whereas in a low-context culture you just say everything and also give a lot of explanations for example. In business this could create awkward situations when you explain in detail about a project and give a detailed explanation about less important parts. Your business partner gets bored and might not listen to you anymore.
Conclusion - the takeaway
When you speak English in business don‘t speak it as in your native language instead accept that it is like you are taking on a different role within your personality. Allow this transformation to take place and be open and curious about your business partners’ culture.
The only way of finding out about unwritten rules in your business partner’s culture is often by talking about them. You could say for example:“ I have noticed that you say xyz.” or “May I ask how you would say xyz?” or “Do you mind me asking why you said xyz etc.?” You might want to consider working with a coach who can help you be faster, get into more detail and start learning intercultural communication from the start. To stay tuned to my future blog posts and be the first to hear when I offer a Business Lunch in English follow me on LinkedIn:
Then I am sure you won‘t feel uncomfortable the next time you are going to meet that client.
Now that I have shared my experiences it would be great to learn about your experiences. Please feel free to write them in the comments box below.