Interacting with people from other cultures can at best be confusing. Personally, I remember a cultural lesson that I learned when my son and I went to Italy. Having been there before with my daughter, I was well aware that their food service was quite different from what we were use to in the States. So I cautioned my son, “So you know, the waiters here are pretty bad. They hardly ever come to your table. I don’t know if they hate Americans, or they’re just plain being rude.”
An English woman who was sitting nearby, overheard my conversation with my son and exclaimed, “Oh no! You don’t understand the Italians!” Hmmm. The last time I checked I was Italian. Anyway, she went on, “The waiters will never come to the table unless you wave them over.” I turned and looked at my son, who shrugged his shoulders. She continued, “The Italians think it’s rude to come over to the table and interrupt your conversation!”
Holy cow! Did I get that wrong! Here I was thinking that they were being rude to us because we were Americans, but in fact, they were just being polite.
So with that experience shaping my “worldly knowledge,” when I saw this article in FastCompany I had to read it. More and more often, I’m finding myself in international meetings. Some seem to go well – the ones with our English partners, but others have gone pretty badly, especially when we’re dealing with our Asia-Pac counterparts. This article seems to nail it for me, so I thought I’d pass it on.
Here’s a teaser from the article:
“I was supposed to be coaching a French automotive executive and his wife for their upcoming move to Wuhan, China. The Chinese country expert assisting me, a 36-year-old Paris-based journalist from Wuhan, was articulate, extroverted, and very knowledgeable. Bo Chen’s job was to prepare two or three concrete business examples to illustrate each cultural issue I’d be covering.
I began the session by outlining the cultural issues that the Bernards needed to grasp about doing business in China, while keeping an eye on Chen so I could weave in his input. But Chen didn’t seem to have any input. After I presented the first main point, I glanced over at him for his examples, but he didn’t speak up. He didn’t open his mouth, lean forward, or raise his hand. Apparently, he had no example to provide. Not wanting to embarrass Chen, I simply continued to my next point.
To my growing dismay, Chen remained silent and nearly motionless as I went through the rest of my presentation. He nodded politely while I was speaking, but that was all; he used no other body language to indicate any reactions, positive or negative. I gave every example I could think of. I spoke, shared, and consulted with the Bernards, still with no input from Chen.
As I neared the end, I turned toward Chen with rising panic; I needed his contribution. So I decided to take a chance. “Bo,” I asked, “did you have any examples you would like to share?” Chen sat up straight in his chair, smiled confidently at the clients, and opened up his notebook, which was filled with many pages of typed notes. “Thank you, Erin,” he replied. “I do.” Chen then began to explain one clear, pertinent, fascinating example after another.”
What had happened, is yet one more fascinating journey into our cultural differences. To find out more, click on this story link: FastCompany.
If you like articles like this, be sure to sign up for our free subscription, which highlights many of these ‘learning’ situations: Subscribe.