International communications – firsthand experiences adjusting business practices/communications for different cultures

International communications

A number of years ago, a communications presentation by Intel made the rounds, inviting some criticism for seeming out-of-touch by offering advice for how American staff at Intel might interact with some of their Israeli counterparts. Israelis in particular were bemused by the unadulterated “American-ness” of categorizing and explaining regular behaviors, much less collating it all into a clean and precise PowerPoint presentation. In the more relaxed, familiar, and slightly less professional culture of Israel, such things simply aren’t done. 

For communications professionals, however, and particularly those familiar with international communications and the Middle East, the PowerPoint presentation didn’t miss the mark that much. Identifying key elements of a foreign culture and understanding the basic roots for common behaviors can be vital for successful interactions abroad. For example, the fact of the matter is that many Israelis do tend to argue frequently, and won’t wait patiently for a question and answer session at the end of a presentation. A bright-eyed and bushy-tailed American businessperson fresh off the plane, will be better equipped to juggle the rapid-fire queries and frequent interruptions, knowing that this behavior exists. That businessperson is even more primed for success, if they also know that the questions and impatience don’t stem from anger, but rather an intensity and curiosity. 

Intel understood that language barriers aside, some things still get lost in translation thanks to simple differences in culture and attitude. In Spain for example, people generally do not identify themselves according to their profession. Coming from Washington D.C., where business cards get whipped out at a frightening speed and you’re likely to get at least one name-drop before you’ve had a sip of chardonnay, this can make initial introductions difficult. Even after five months in Spain, I couldn’t quite kick the habit of asking someone what they did upon meeting them. In one telling moment, a newly-made acquaintance responded that he was “an adventurer.” My ability to connect and interact successfully increased tremendously when I took the time to learn about people in their entirety. This key insight into the values of the Spanish society was a real asset when it came to relationship building. 

For those travelling to London, in addition to packing an umbrella, Americans might want to bring along a slightly more subdued attitude. We might think that we speak the same language, but plenty of the Queen’s subjects would happily attest that what Americans speak is not in fact English. I didn’t realize how loud I was until I sat on a London Underground where every single other passenger sat in complete and total silence. The speed and volume of my speech was not entirely well received. By adopting a slightly more reserved personality and even speaking a notch slower can ensure that you are not mistaken for being overly frivolous and ensure that you and your talking points are taken seriously.

Some good advice that I once got for successful interactions abroad is to bring a healthy dose of humility in your bag. We are all accustomed to our own social mores and it’s easy to slip into assuming that they are somehow superior or that everyone else behaves exactly as we do. This of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. In addition to humility, the advice I now offer, is to add a healthy dose of adventure. Remind yourself that just because you do it doesn’t make it “right” and also be ready and willing to jump in and go along with something that would seem out of place at home. Your ability to communicate will improve tremendously, and you will certainly learn some things along the way.