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“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are,” said Dean Foster, quoting from Anaïs Nin’s 1958 novel
Seduction of the Minotaur. Foster, president of New York City-based DFA Intercultural, conducts cross-cultural training worldwide and consults on intercultural business issues with
Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. and around the world.
He spoke June 20 at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition.
Someone from Brazil, for example, might characterize people in the U.S. as cautious and methodical while someone from Japan might describe Americans as spontaneous and impulsive, Foster said.
Those differing views are the result of cultural filters, he explained.
An office in another country may appear to be the same as your U.S. office on the surface, but be assured that there are implicit as well as explicit cultures at work.
“Superficial similarities coexist with fundamental differences,” Foster said.
Explicit culture is signaled by such things as language, food, architecture, dress and music and by how people work, including attitudes about punctuality, negotiation styles, decision-making patterns and management techniques, Foster noted.
Implicit culture is reflected in how work relationships are characterized, such as whether individual or group dynamics take precedence in decision-making, whether the culture is hierarchical or egalitarian, and whether relationships must be established before or after entering into a project.
Foster recalled a young man in Seoul who explained that, in that work culture, it would be a sign of disrespect to walk quickly down the hallway past a slower-moving but more-senior manager who was ahead of him. And Foster worked with a young man in India who repeatedly assured him that all was “fine” with a project when that was not the case. In that culture, Foster learned, it is considered disrespectful for a junior employee to tell a manager if there are problems.
Managing ‘Global English’
When working with a colleague from another culture, try these methods for modifying your behavior to account for differences, Foster advised:
*Slow down when speaking, especially on the phone, to give the person time to process your message. Be OK with silence as your colleague absorbs what you have said.
*Simplify your words and speak in phrases to better communicate your message.
*Avoid slang, acronyms and sports terms. U.S.-based organizations often use baseball terms—“off base,” “out of left field,” “hit a home run”—but the meanings may get lost in translation for someone in another country.
*Tone down your voice; never shout.
*Remain formal in how you address your colleague. For example, use his or her honorifics or full name unless otherwise directed.
*Ask about language terms you don’t understand, and learn 10 basic phrases in the colleague’s language.
*Organize written communication in bullet points, especially if you are requesting a response.
*Avoid using double negatives and asking yes/no questions, and tune into context and nonverbal cues.
In some cultures, a “yes” answer could mean yes, no or maybe, if the cultural norm is to avoid confrontation and maintain harmony and if deadlines are viewed as suggestions, Foster said.
Instead of asking if work will be done by a given date, clearly state the outcome if the deadline is not met:
“If I don’t get the report by Tuesday, we lose the customer.”
Technology, mass communications, mass migration and the fall of trade barriers are among the factors that have created a more complex world, Foster pointed out. He urged HR practitioners to work with their organizations “to create a global strategy that is informed by best practices of the entire organization,” including headquarters.
Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at
Follow her @SHRMwriter.
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