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Here’s a cross-cultural joke: An American was visiting a cemetery one day when he noticed an Asian gentleman putting a bowl of fruit on a grave. “When do you think your friend will be eating that fruit?” he asked. “The same time that yours will be smelling those flowers,” the other man replied.
This story makes a clear point about the blindness of cultural biases. The way we’ve always done things makes sense to us, but not necessarily to others. And the habits, words, and gestures of ‘those other people’ may seem confusing or odd to us. In an increasingly cross-cultural workplace, many misunderstandings can arise from cultural differences in communication. Some common areas of difference are listed below.
Respectful disagreement with colleagues and managers is expected in the U.S. Different opinions and competing ideas are often hashed out in group meetings. In some other cultures, however, directly disagreeing is seen as rude and inappropriate, especially with your boss and especially in front of others. Disagreement may be expressed so mildly that an American doesn’t even notice.
For the most part, people in the U.S. expect meetings to start on time and messages to receive prompt replies. They are therefore surprised when someone from a different culture shows up at 3:25 for the 3:00 meeting or takes three days to return a call. Cultures differ greatly in their sense of time urgency.
Many cultures place a greater importance on relationships than we do in the U.S. We often say “it’s only business”, but in other places business and personal relationships are intertwined. In these cultures, it would be considered extremely rude to get right to work without inquiring about someone’s health or family. One group of U.S. engineers found that their cross-cultural counterparts saw no reason to respond to emails from people they did not know.
Even mild questioning of authority figures is taboo in certain cultures. These employees may constantly smile and nod while talking to their manager, giving the impression that they agree when in fact they do not. They may also fail to raise issues or concerns because of their belief that managers must be unquestioningly obeyed. U.S. companies with operations in hierarchical cultures often find that the American practice of using employee opinion surveys is considered odd. And any surveys conducted will receive very positive responses.
The United States is a very informal society. We often begin using someone’s first name as soon as we meet them, sometimes even taking the liberty of giving them a nickname (John for Jonathan, Liz for Elizabeth). In more reserved cultures, people are addressed formally for a much longer period, and first names are not used until the person gives permission. Also, Americans must remember that while our surnames come last (Fred Jones is Mr. Jones), some other countries put the surname first.
English words and phrases may not retain their meaning when translated. And even when we speak the same language, as with the U.S. and the U.K., there can be confusion. For example, an American secretary was quite surprised when a departing British colleague cheerily said, “Well, I’ll knock you up the next time I’m here!” (meaning “ring you up” or “look you up” in U.S. English). Conversely, an American startled her British dinner companions when she leaned back after a large meal and sighed, “I’m stuffed!” (meaning in U.K. English that she just had sex).
Definitions of appropriate and inappropriate nonverbal behavior vary widely across cultures. The common American “thumbs up” gesture, for example, would be quite offensive in some countries. Making eye contact, standing close to someone, sitting down before the other person, showing the sole of your foot, reading a business card, presenting an object with your left hand – all these gestures and behaviors can have different meanings in different cultures.
So when you are working with people from other countries or traveling to other places, it’s best to do your homework by buying books, doing online research, or talking to people familiar with the culture.
Amid all these confusing differences, however, here’s one comforting thought: researchers have found that a genuinely friendly smile is understood by virtually everyone in every country!