Culture Clash

Closing gaps between different worlds is crucial to building team trust. By Mary Brandel

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Rules of Engagement

In the hierarchical cultures of Asian countries, guests and superiors are never corrected in meetings or teleconferences. Even if you asked, "Can we move ahead with this plan?" you might hear "yes," but that simply means you're senior to them and they can't push back, Crotts says.

In India, a "no" might sound like, "I'll try to get to it on Sunday," Schafer says. "Many people in Asia think they're preserving the relationship by giving us what they think is a soft no," she says. What can cause more confusion is that workers in India aren't culturally compelled to close the loop, because in their minds, they never committed to a time frame.

With so much room for misinterpretation, it's important to play it straight with both speech and body language. Keep your vocabulary basic, and avoid jokes, Rosen cautions, as they never translate. Don't use a lot of hand gestures -- a thumb's up and the OK sign are obscene in places like Brazil, Australia, Spain and the Middle East.

"Since gestures have different meanings in different parts of the world, they can cause confusion," says Terri Morrison, president of Getting Through Customs , which provides books and seminars for international travelers. This is particularly true in "high context" cultures such as Japan, France and many Arab countries, where important information is transmitted in nonverbal or indirect ways, in comparison with low-context cultures such as the U.S., U.K. and Germany, where most information is transmitted verbally.

It may seem basic, but you should also speak slowly, since many in the audience may not speak English as their primary language. "We don't think of ourselves as having an accent, but when I ask people in India what is hard about communicating with Americans, they say accents," Schafer says.

Confrontation is also treated very differently throughout the world. Whereas workers in the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia and Israel are comfortable vocalizing contrary opinions, even in the presence of superiors, Asian workers are less so.

"When Americans work with India, China or another Asian country, they make the assumption that people will speak up in a meeting or conference call -- and they will if they're in a position of power," Schafer says. "But if they're not, our questions may be met with silence." For that reason, problematic issues should be discussed privately in one-on-one conversations. "Conference calls are good for disseminating information but not for discussions of what is not working," Schafer says.

The situation is quite different in Israel. Meetings there can involve lots of shouting, but "it's nothing personal -- once it's over, everyone's friends again," Huber says.

And while Americans have no problem jumping into a business discussion as soon as a meeting begins, it's considered insulting in places like the Far East to begin negotiations before socializing and forming a relationship, even if that takes days, Kubilus says. Similarly, in collectivist cultures such as those of Spain, Italy and Latin America, it's important to build a relationship first and let that dictate where business decisions lead, Davidson says. "Individualistic cultures like in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany are more interested in getting the task done and building the relationship later," he says.

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