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Communicating to Bridge Cultural Differences

by John Astor

John Astor offers five simple steps for those who work abroad. From reacting carefully to speaking clearly, his five steps can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Work Abroad - Communicating to Bridge Cultural Differences


As the world shrinks and we work closer and closer together, accepting and understanding each other becomes more essential every day. It also becomes more perilous for business people to make costly mistakes that can ruin a relationship and can be avoided.

For organizations, large and small, having the ability to grow geographically is a brave new world that can bring many benefits if they can transcend cultural differences. We don't need a cultural anthropologist or even a psychiatrist. But what we do need is a universal method for interacting free of bias and prejudice and inclusive of grown differences.

By considering basic behavior, we can observe distinctions in each culture. But are there some common traits that we can use with everyone? Absolutely!

First consider what some CEO's say about making agreements abroad. Ralph Tashjian, CEO of SMC Records in San Francisco says, ‘When I go to Europe to develop contacts and make deals, I am very restrained with my normal personality style. I react carefully and with great care to show respect. I also speak very clearly and precisely so I'm not to be misunderstood'.

I couldn't have said it better. Examining Mr. Tashjian's articulate observations, there are five essential points that everyone working in an international setting can benefit from.

  1. Be cautious with behavior. You have developed your behaviors in a certain region with people. Many mannerisms and gestures will not be understood. Watch others carefully and try to adapt for better communication. Don't speak in idioms and colloquial terms. Be sure to communicate in ways that will be understood.
  2. React carefully. Your spontaneous reactions are usually conditional responses that are based on your place of origin.  You will be much better off pausing before reacting when you feel one of your buttons being pushed. Many times the impulse to react is misjudged when seen in retrospect.
  3. Show respect. We respect others when reach for understanding and listen very attentively. Try to grasp the meaning behind their words and body language. If. you don't understand, ask politely and without being patronizing.
  4. Speak clearly.  Remember your best teachers. Speak in a way that transmits the message without extensive use of tangent conversations, and above all keep your objectives in mind.
  5. Be understood. Take the time to ask if you're getting your point across. If not be prepared to phrase your words differently. Be able to break your message down to simple words, if necessary.
Whether you're having a meeting, a business lunch or a quick coffee with someone from another culture, you will be benefited greatly if you follow these five simple steps. We cannot afford to seem detached in any way from our foreign contacts because if we are, the damage may be too great to be repaired. 


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