Whether you’re working on assignment in a foreign country or hosting Zoom conferences with teams around the world, your ability to build relationships can make or break your business success.
In some cultures, the strength of a relationship indicates your trustworthiness as a business partner — and building the relationship depends on five key behaviors. Ask yourself:
How do you greet others?
We’ve all been socialized on how to greet other people. We might kiss (be it once, twice, or three or four times on the lips or cheek — or in the air), bow (after gauging how low and with whom), or shake hands (using one or both hands to firmly pump one, two, or more times).
In the U.S., a firm handshake and a toothy smile are the norm. In Italy and France, a double kiss is more appropriate. In Iran, men might greet other men with a kiss or handshake, and women kiss women. In Japan and Korea, bowing is more common.
In the digital realm, how team members are addressed when greeted — and who speaks first — deeply matter. In many cultures, failing to use formal titles or adhere to protocol means being written off as discourteous, impolite, rude, or worse.
Tip: In unknown situations, err on the side of greater formality. Use Mr., Ms., or Dr. with a surname and more deferential speech. While this may feel inauthentic if you’re more informal, it’s easier to start with greater formality and move to informality over time.
What’s your social distance?
During the COVID pandemic, everyone is thinking about social distance and how far they are from others. It turns out, we’ve been doing that long before the pandemic. Even in pre-COVID times, think of the last time someone stood too close or too far from you when they spoke with you. Without any thought, you reflexively moved back or closer depending on your socialized norm. It was a subconscious judgment resulting in an automatic behavior.
If the person moved closer or further again (using his or her automatic behavior), the subconscious action became a conscious violation. You might judge the person to be “creepy” or “weird” — or just different, depending on how much time you’ve spent with those from a different culture.
A study of social distance in 42 countries found that preferred distances vary considerably depending on the country. For example, in China, the preferred distance from a stranger is about 110 centimeters, whereas it’s only 90 centimeters in Spain.
Tip: When you first meet someone, try to remain still. As a reflex, the other person will move to the distance that feels right. For you, it might feel too close or too far, but it will be comfortable for the other person.
Are you hands-on or hands-off?
As with greetings and social distance, there’s a wide range across cultures in how much people use touch in conversation. In some countries, it’s a norm to touch another person’s arm for emphasis, to foster connection, or to show empathy.
In a study of European countries, researchers found many differences. In Greece, for example, 32% of conversations included some form of touch. Yet, in the Netherlands, only 4% of conversations did.
Tip: Be mindful of gender and age differences with respect to who will be open to touching — and whether touching someone of the opposite sex will be viewed as appropriate.
Are you chatty or silent?
Do you remember the last time you were in a conversation with someone who either remained silent when you were expecting a response or interrupted you when you were talking? In either case, the flow of conversation was disrupted.
The use of both silence and interruption has vastly different meanings, depending on the cultures. At one extreme, in some Latin cultures, talking over another person (i.e., interrupting) is a way to express enthusiastic engagement for what’s being said. At the other extreme, in some Asian cultures, remaining silent before speaking is a way to show thoughtful engagement.
When silence is used correctly in multicultural interactions, those interacting go into a state of conversational flow, experiencing a greater sense of belonging, social connection, and consensus. Without conversational flow, people may feel rejected, and it can sour their view of you and others. Wherever you are on this continuum, your speech pattern can affect how you will be viewed as a conversational partner.
Tip: Learn how your team members’ cultures affect their communication patterns and use of silence. Seek out foreign movies and tv shows to practice listening to a member’s native language or accented English) to learn the intonation, rhythm, use of silence, and how engagement is shown verbally and nonverbally.
Are you comfortable with self-disclosing?
Zoom calls from kitchens and living rooms have heightened our awareness of our colleagues’ comfort with privacy. Yet these differences are present with or without bringing our colleagues — virtually — into our homes. For example, have you ever met someone for the first time while on a plane, bus, or in line at the market, and, without inquiry, he or she begins to tell you something you thought was too personal? What’s your reaction? If you’re like most, it’s to get away from the person as quickly as possible (if doing so doesn’t require a parachute).
What’s deemed too personal, however, differs across cultures. In some cultures, as in the U.S., self-disclosing personal information about family, health, and work is comfortable. In other cultures, personal information is limited to a small circle of loved ones and therapists.
Tip: Begin conversations with something neutral, like the weather. Do your homework on topics. In some cultures, even commenting on a family photo or making a cultural inquiry might seem rude. In team conference calls or Zoom meetings, acknowledge each team member’s personal and professional milestones, respecting differences in privacy. Celebrate virtually if that’s comfortable for everyone.
These behaviors all influence how you perceive others — and how they perceive you — as you foster relationships. However, this list is not exhaustive. To learn more, consult with colleagues, mentors, and friends who understand the culture and how to effectively build rapport, communicate, and, ultimately, gain trust within it.