Canadians are increasingly part of a global world. Canada itself is a fascinating mix of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. This diversity brings a richness that offers opportunities for both occupational and personal growth. It also brings substantial challenges, particularly as it relates to communication. Everything changes when you work with someone from a different culture: how you say hello, what is appropriate to talk about, how you shake hands, how you give or take an order, what is funny, what it means to be a man or a woman, the role of a boss, how you deal with time and space, and many other issues.
Here are six practical tips to navigate the challenging terrain of dealing with intercultural issues.
1. Remember what works in your own culture is exactly what might not work in another culture. What might seem routine could be very inappropriate with someone from another culture. This might involve anything from whether to have an agenda for the meeting, the number of people have on your negotiating team, how timely you should be for the meeting, the communication style you use, and whether your agreement should be put in writing.
2. Build solid relationships before getting down to business. Not much is likely to get accomplished unless your intercultural counterpart feels good about dealing with you. For one thing, smile. A genuine smile is a universal lubricant that says, “I enjoy doing business with you.” Keep in mind that building a relationship with your intercultural counterpart will usually take a lot more time than what you may use to. Intercultural negotiations may take two or three times what you might experience in Canada.
3. Be yourself but be an effective foreigner. This has to do with respect. You don’t have to go native, but adapt your behavior to those with different cultural backgrounds from you. Be culturally literate if you’re traveling outside Canada – know how to read behaviors in the host country culture. Most people will give you an “A” for effort when they see that you are trying to learn about their culture.
4. Use language that is simple and accessible. Avoid slang and jargon. Terms like, “Let’s cut to the chase,” or “you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip” may or may not make sense if you’re from Canada, but are less likely to be understandable elsewhere. Ask for clarification. Avoid telling jokes – they almost never make sense to someone from another culture.
5. Don’t judge behavior in old ways, and try to expand your comfort zones. Because a Brazilian gives you a hug upon greeting you or stands close to you when talking, does not mean the person is pushy. The person is expressing friendship. Because an Indonesian does not sustain eye contact does not mean he’s unassertive.
6. Adopt the Platinum Rule. Do unto others as they would have done unto them. This may not be what you would like to have done unto you. For instance, you might like a firm handshake or feel comfortable getting on a first-name basis early in a business discussion. This could be an affront to your counterpart in many parts of the world.