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  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

Working in the Smart Zone with People of Different Cultures

Recently I was speaking to an organization which has a global workforce and a focus on diversity. An audience member pointed out to me that one of my presentation points might be different for people from Eastern cultures.

He was referring to my topic of establishing trust by "talking straight;" that is, telling people the truth in 15 seconds or less. He agreed that Eastern cultures strongly value honesty and truthfulness and that they will feel more comfortable if rapport is established first.

Talking straight as defined in Stephen M.R. Covey's book The Speed of Trust means "honesty in action by telling the truth and leaving the right impression." The opposite being to lie or deceive. We all know people who don't talk straight. We may say they are beating around the bush, double-talking, withholding information, using flattery or putting a "spin" on the situation.

It is possible for talking straight to get you out of your Smart Zone. Cruel or brutal communication used in the name of honesty (a la Simon Cowell on American Idol) is never effective in business. Keep the following Smart Moves in mind when working with people of different cultural backgrounds:

  • Dealing with Conflict. In the U.S. we deal with conflict head on and work through differences as they arise. We may raise our voice, yell, and even stoke the fire during the discussion all in the name of "airing it out." But in many Eastern countries conflict is often seen as embarrassing or demeaning and differences are worked out quietly - or even in writing. Losing one's temper will destroy trust and respect in Eastern countries.

  • Making Decisions. In the U.S. we tend to delegate decision-making authority. But in many European and Latin American cultures there is additional status with being able to make decisions oneself. Also, in the U.S. majority rules when making decisions, but in Japan the focus is put on attaining a consensus (click here for more on this subject).

  • Reading other People. In this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology a study of Americans and Japanese revealed that in a group of people Americans read emotions of each individual person within the group. Japanese tend to focus more on the emotions of the whole group. Japanese are more sensitive to the social context of a situation. Keep this in mind when working in a group because a Japanese team member could react negatively to being singled out.

  • The Handshake. In the U.S. a firm, 2-3 second handshake is respectful whereas a limp handshake is a sign of weakness. But in many countries a firm handshake is offensive. Click here for an explanation of handshakes by culture. Keep this in mind when working with people of different cultures and don't force the strong U.S. handshake on someone to show domination.

  • Watch your Body Language. In the Middle East, India specifically, agreement is shown by shaking one's head side to side - whereas in the U.S. this signifies disagreement. Public yawning is not acceptable in most Latin American countries - turn your head and cover your mouth if you feel a yawn coming on. In France someone who smiles too much is considered condescending or stupid - so wipe the smile off your face. (Watch a brief interview on this subject).

To stay in the Smart Zone, don't assume there is only one way to communicate (yours!). Listen and try to put yourself in other's shoes. Cultural diversity brings broader experiences that can give your organization a critical competitive advantage.

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