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Heather Townsend

The Excedia Group


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When in Rome, do as the Romans do


Heather Townsend gives us her tips on how to train and network with people from different cultures.

International communications have now made it easier to do business in the global marketplace. This means that trainers are often finding themselves delivering programmes or workshops abroad. So, now more than ever, trainers have to be aware of the cultural differences that exist – and more importantly how to adapt their behaviour to both provide the optimum learning environment, as well as (if have business development responsibility) generate business from all over the world.

People within a distinct culture have different beliefs, attitudes and ways of doing things. Everyone is slightly different – no two people are actually 100% alike in both mind and body. You see these microcosms of culture also happening within a business. Different teams, departments and offices within a single business will all have slightly different cultures, or, more simply, different ways of thinking and doing things.
Successful trainers are aware of potential differences between people and behaviours – and are continually on the lookout for signs which give them clues about what are acceptable behaviours, and what are not. Expertly being able to train and coach across different cultures is more than just being able to rapidly adjust and conform to expected behaviour.
"When you meet someone different to you, use basic human shared values to connect with them."
Your research before travelling or meeting anyone from a different background to yourself, will give you clues to watch out for and what to expect. For example, what is the appropriate greeting for a stranger and a friend? When is it OK to shake a women’s hand? How should you exchange business cards? What’s the typical style for a discussion? Does a meeting timetabled for 15.00, really mean it will start at 15.00?
From the formal British handshake, to the reserved Japanese bow to the spontaneous kiss on both cheeks from the French, greeting people – whether a stranger or a good friend, varies across different cultures. The more expressive a culture, the more likely the greeting will involve closeness of physical contact. If in doubt about the appropriateness of a greeting, watch what your host does – or let the other person initiate the greeting.
It is worth noting that some religions, for example Islam, forbid physical contact between unmarried or non-related men and women. As a rule of thumb, if a religion requires women to cover their face or hair, then there is a strong likelihood that a handshake – or any physical contact with a man who she is not related to – is deemed inappropriate behaviour. When I was fortunate enough to spend a week training in Bahrain, I always let my host determine the right form of greeting.

Shared values

A relationship is built upon shared values and trust. When you meet someone from a different economic, cultural or social background it is all too easy to see the differences. When you meet someone different to you, use basic human shared values to connect with them. For example, pretty much everyone is proud of their family and home.
Cultural etiquette often defines how a business card should be given, received and treated – and this will differ from country to country. Before you visit a foreign country, do ask a local how business cards are used.
English may be the predominant language used in international business; however a trip to America or even places in the UK with a strong regional dialect and accent, such as the North East, will demonstrate that the English language is used very differently in different geographical locations. When you are communicating with non-native English speakers, eliminate any slang or colloquialisms, as usage of these may lead to misunderstandings. Something as simple as saying – "keep me in the loop", in Africa means to get a woman pregnant.
For example, instead of saying, "Give me a bell" or "Drop me a line”, say: "Let’s arrange a time for a telephone call" or "Please send me an e-mail."
When someone is communicating in a language with which they are not fully familiar, they will have a tendency to say yes to any question – even if they do not fully understand the question. Therefore, use open ended questions which test their understanding, for example: “Do you know what you need to do?” rather than “Can you tell me what we have agreed to do?"
Different cultures have different styles of discussions. In Anglo-Saxon cultures, silence is seen to be uncomfortable, and someone will start talking when someone else finishes speaking. Interrupting someone before they have finished talking is seen to be rude. Whereas, the Latin temperaments, will happily tolerate a small amount of interruption as this is seen to be a sign of interest in the subject, rather than rudeness.
Oriental cultures like to have time to reflect and digest on what has been said as this shows respect for the person who has been talking. Therefore, expect for there to be silences in a discussion and any interruptions in conversation will be seen as disrespectful.
When you need to engage cross-culturally, take the time to learn the basics of please, thankyou, yes, no, good morning, and so on. If you find that you are a regular visitor to a country where you are not a native speaker of the language, take the time to learn a little more of the language.
As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Heather Townsend is the author of The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking. Over the past decade, Heather has worked with more than one hundred partners, coached and trained over 1000 lawyers, accountants and other professionals at every level, within the UK's leading and most ambitious professional practices.She specializes in working with professional services firms and is the founder of The Efficiency Coach.

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Heather Townsend


Read more from Heather Townsend

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