3 Tips for Cross-Cultural Meetings
By Andreas Fried, Director at Universal Consensus
We have all experienced bad meetings. In Western countries this may mean lack of punctuality or urgency, redundant discussions that go on and on, or conversation domination. But when meeting attendees are from different countries, it gets more complex. What is bad meeting behavior in one country is not necessarily bad in another.
The ground rule is: make no assumptions except the assumption that cross-cultural difference will impact the meeting. The differences are so vast that it is important to have a framework for understanding cross-cultural meeting behaviors. Let’s use the BMIA™ framework to look at three distinct factors:
Time: The perception of time is vastly different in different cultures on many levels. Most non-Western countries will not see time as a precious resource that needs to be managed. Instead, time is an indefinite resource that flows from an infinite past into the immeasurable future. Immediate needs rather than detailed plans will decide what gets done.
Level of hierarchy and formality: In the U.S. hierarchy and acquiescence have a bad ring, but it is the cornerstone of meeting behavior in Korea and Japan. What Westerners see as submission is seen as respect (for seniority/rank/experience) in East Asia.
Also be observant of formality. Americans are often viewed as being at the extreme end of informality on the formality spectrum. Americans are viewed as quite direct, as opposed to indirect Asians at the other side of the spectrum. But the Dutch and Danish are often perceived as so blunt and frank that this is sometimes off-putting even to the Americans.
Non-verbal cues; eye contact, space proximity, and use of silence: In some regions, such as Arabic countries, intense eye contact is seen as a way of showing interest. Intermittent eye contact may be construed as untrustworthiness. On the opposite spectrum, in continuous eye contact may be viewed as disrespectful and should be avoided when engaging with a more senior Asian counterpart. But the rules for use of eye contact are shifting. The younger generation in China use eye contact in a manner very similar to the U.S. The purpose of a cross cultural framework, such as the BMIA™, is to be observant of the aspects of engaging that differ from culture to culture and to be able to adapt accordingly. You can adjust your behavior based on your counterpart’s behavior. If you have a local translator present you may ask the translator for advice.
Space proximity works as a subconscious reflex. Latin Americans may come across as close talkers to Americans and North Europeans who will want to increase the personal space proximity compared with Americans. This may sound like a perfunctory aspect of interaction, but it has the power to make both sides very uncomfortable thereby reducing the odds of a favorable business outcome.
Lastly, be aware of the use of silence. This aspect of meeting behavior can drive Americans crazy. We have a hard time coping with silence. In many cultures silence is not supposed to be filled at all costs and your international counterpart will most likely have much more patience than you do. Although it may not be a formal negotiation, meetings often are about negotiating in some form. If you don’t value patience and the use of silence you’re likely to make unnecessary concessions or “spill the beans” in discussions with your international counterpart.
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