Did you know that you should use both hands when receiving a business card from a Chinese colleague and then you should take the time to read it carefully? Or that standing with your hands on your hips can be interpreted as anger by a person from India? And please be careful of sports metaphors when talking to people from other cultures. They can be taken literally and you could find yourself "fumbling" all the hard work you've put into your multicultural/multinational business relationships. These days most of us find ourselves working with colleagues from other countries, backgrounds, religions and cultures. Many of these interactions happen in foreign countries but more and more of them are taking place right here at home. Here are just a few things I've learned that can help you improve your multicultural business etiquette.
Names. Take the time to pronounce and to spell your business colleague's name correctly. It may help to associate the name with a word or phrase familiar to you or to write it phonetically. Also, name order may differ in other countries. For example, in China the family name comes first; then the given name. Remember, a person's name is a major part of his or her identity. By pronouncing and spelling it correctly, you show respect for that person.
Politics. Forms of government differ throughout the world. The same goes for views of historical and current events. Be very careful when these subjects arise and make sure you respect other points of view.
Language. I have a dear friend from the United Kingdom who says she speaks two languages — English and American. We Americans sprinkle our conversations with idioms, slang and quotes from various aspects of popular culture. All of this can be confusing to people from other parts of the world. If you are using English as your language of choice, stick to simple and concise wording and use the language properly. If you are communicating in another language, be sure you are speaking it correctly and are aware of the pronunciation and word usage nuances. Also, many languages have a different sentence structure than English. For example, if you say, "I live in St. Petersburg," it may be translated into "I in St. Petersburg live."
Time and date. When you are conducting business, remember that the time of day and even the date may be different in other parts of the world. Check to make sure you are calling your foreign business contacts during their business hours. Email is a savior here because it can be written any time of the day or night and will be available to the recipient at a convenient time.
Physical space. People in most Western cultures prefer a little personal space when meeting with others. But that varies from culture to culture. In fact, in some parts of the world people prefer to get "in your face" when speaking to you. This is not meant to intimidate and it should not be taken as a sign of disrespect. Learn about the proper personal distance when dealing with other cultures.
Humor. Be very careful of how you use humor. Much of our American humor is based on sayings, events or a play on words. What is funny to most Americans may be confusing or even offensive to others.
Religious beliefs and practices. There are many religious holidays, taboos and rituals including certain food restrictions or fasting requirements. Educate yourself when dealing with other cultures and especially before planning business meetings and social gatherings.
Sources: www.chinasavvy.com, www.cyborlink.com, www.agonist.org/learning.center
In a recent column, I quoted TechSoup (techsoup.org) regarding working in the nonprofit sector. In fact, the quote should have been attributed to an article by Action Without Borders/Idealist.org, which was reposted on the TechSoup website.
Marie Stempinski is president and founder of Strategic Communication in St. Petersburg. She specializes in public relations, marketing, business trends and employee motivation consulting. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at www.howtomotivateemployees.org.