Research about cross-cultural relationships tends to yield highly detailed laundry lists of dos and don’ts. Popular recommendations focus on nonverbal considerations such as the proper depth of a bow, how to position your feet so that you don’t show the soles of your shoes, or the number of kisses that are appropriate when greeting. Some of these guidelines are useful, but many are outdated, and most are not transferable from one culture to another.
We suggest a more universal approach. Simply put, the key is civility. Learning how to read behaviour and to react respectfully across cultures has tremendous payoffs. The same skill set applies wherever in the world your business takes you.
Before you go:
Reflect on your culture and especially on the stereotypes, biases and idiosyncrasies that others may look for in you.
Become knowledgeable about where you’re going. Read about it in your favourite genre – history, biography, fiction, international newspapers and so on. Learn basic expressions of civility such as “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” in the language of your hosts. Watch movies set in the locale. Ask people familiar with the culture for briefings. But don’t believe everything you hear: One consequence of our fast-paced global world is that behavioural norms, like many other things, shift rapidly.
Adopt an open mindset. Plan to try out new ideas and behaviours.
Once you’re there:
Show respect. Intent goes a long way, and most people will be able to decipher your intentions quickly, even across cultures.
Be agreeable toward everyone you encounter.
Remember that you may be pricklier than usual, because you’re outside your routines. Practice greater patience with others and with yourself. Suspend judgment of anything or anyone for as long as you can.
Venture outside your comfort zone to learn quickly.
Adapt your behaviour to fit in as best you can – but don’t step over the line by trying to “go native.”
Catch, laugh about and learn from your missteps. Even significant faux pas are usually forgiven if accompanied by sincere expressions of goodwill. One way to show that you mean well is to attempt a few words in the local language.