I soon found out that the meeting was via phone, not Skype. I’ve never felt more fashionable alone in a room, talking through the headset in my flip flops.
This insignificant mix-up is maybe the closest I have ever been to a “cultural misunderstanding” in more than fifteen years of my career.
I’m hesitant to accept most cliché online advice on intercultural communication. The typical advice when entering a bargaining session with people from a new country is to be aware of cultural differences. Cultural differences are important to know, but as I see it, in order to connect across cultures it is even more important to focus on what you have in common.
Stereotypes, such as categorizing someone with a particular readiness to take risks or express themselves emotionally because they’re from a certain culture, may turn out to be false. People, as happens most of the time, may not be willing to play the part. Furthermore, studies indicate that there are many more cultural differences between people’s individuality than within their race or gender. “Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning,” writes Megan Gannon in Scientific American. All the more reason to beware of clichés.
As a global marketer, you need to make sure you can communicate effectively with brand leaders around the world. Here are my top takeaways on how to gain home field advantage anywhere you go and play positive sum games—games where all parties have something to win.
For starters, don’t ignore perhaps the most obvious commonality: human nature. In his 1991 book, Human Universals, anthropologist Donald E. Brown provides a list of features unique to humans, such as culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche. The inventory comprises everything from storytelling, logical relations, and kinship categories to social reasoning, law, and of course, adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair.
It goes without saying that language and communication abilities occupy a good part of the professor’s list of commonalities between cultures. Then a fair question to pose is, why do we insist on pinpointing differences between culture? And above all, on what kind of criteria are those differences based?
Forward-thinking marketers should identify common ground to manage cross-cultural communication better.
Have you ever prepared for a meeting, memorizing Hofstede and revising your notes on intercultural communication styles, only to realize that you didn’t need them? It’s happened to me more than once. Especially my clients from northern Europe, who are supposed to be emotionally unexpressive and confrontational (except for the Swedish), never fail to disappoint: they are charming, expressive, talkative, and they like our Mediterranean, casual style more than I do (and are also more familiar with the best restaurants in Barcelona).
It’s likely that you have experienced something similar and thought that it was an exception to the rule. But the question is, when are there too many exceptions for it to be considered a rule anymore?
Most people are cooperative and focus on interests, not positions, which takes me to my next point: how to go from the common ground of our shared communication abilities to a successful negotiation.
Imagine that two prisoners are given the following options. If Prisoner X sells out Prisoner Y, X goes free while Y serves a year and the other way around. If both confess, they each serve six months. If both stay silent, they each serve only three months. In this game theory, originally developed in a think tank in 1950, the prisoner’s dilemma shows why two rational individuals might not cooperate with each other, even if it appears that it is better for them to do so.
When the game is played in a context where a similar dilemma can present itself indefinitely, like business negotiations, experiments prove that sympathy-induced altruism can reduce both self-defeating egoism and the costly temptation to retaliate. Therefore, the possibility to reap the rewards of cooperation very much depends upon the possibility of repeated encounters, as those factors are not in play in a single choice.
Now, remember all the communication abilities we share according to Donald E. Brown. They comprise much more than linguistic traits like value placed on articulateness, rhetorical speech forms, or words for certain concepts. They include non-linguistic vocal communication, recognized facial expressions, and interpreting intention from behavior.
Look for those verbal and non-verbal cues to find what you have in common with the person you are talking to, instead of seeking the cultural differences. The more times you and your peers do this, the more everyone will be inclined to look past imperfections and recognize the advantages of working together.
Repeated encounters are exactly what travel and innovation have brought with them during these past decades. Insofar as technology has shortened the distances and increased the knowledge of other cultures, the “prisoners” at the negotiating table are much better off if they trust in mutual cooperation.
Global marketers are prepared to move beyond cultural stereotypes because a global approach is not incompatible with enriching the receiving culture of their own brands in the process. In the same way, business leaders (or anyone meeting others from a different culture) can make better connections by finding common ground and gaining new perspectives.
Making cultural mistakes is an understandable concern. However, when you manage to connect personally, faux pas are more easily overlooked, because your interlocutors feel that you’re treating them as individuals and not as “cultural ambassadors.”
I hope I didn’t persuade you with my arguments, because I want you to be prepared and alert for your next meeting. But afterward, when the meeting is over, ask yourself if once again you felt effortlessly at ease, like playing at home, by just gravitating toward similarities. You will probably find new reasons to believe that stereotypes are fair bets, but often wrong.