Air France was founded in 1933 and merged with its Dutch counterpart in 2004. Thirteen years later, this high-flying marriage is facing serious cross-winds. And yet, it looked like a match made in heaven…
Up until now, fingers were pointed at the deregulation of Europe’s skies, and increased competition from Gulf carriers. However, a recently leaked internal company report shows that the evil is to be found within. The clash of national cultures and an inability to understand each other’s languages has proven to be nothing less than toxic.
Culture is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. From the way we drink our coffee to the way we do business, culture creates the sense of security and belonging that we need to truly connect with each other. It is needless to say that when you operate across cultures, there are a couple of extra hurdles to deal with before you can truly connect. So before you jump into that conversation with your colleague from abroad, stop to consider the following points. They will help you on your way to jump the cultural hurdles without falling flat on your face.
It all starts with this: being aware that different countries have different ways and times of doing things. Your way is not THE way (and neither is theirs). As in marriage, a common culture is to be developed over the years. And yes, this takes time, patience but mostly the will to truly understand what drives the person or the organisation you are dealing with.
Before you meet your foreign colleague, take the time to do read up on their country’s rituals and etiquette. Should you address your colleague by their first name or not? Something simple like how to greet them is probably culturally determined. In some countries, a hug, a tap on the shoulder or a kiss are quite normal, whereas in others these come close to harassment. You should not aim for a perfect mastery of their etiquette, though. The fact that you’ve taken the trouble to do some research and that you try to do things right is often enough to show people that you care.
One of the culture’s main expressions is language. As soon as people open their mouths to speak, you can more or less place them in a geographical region and a social/cultural subgroup. When you and your counterpart speak different languages, work with an interpreter to avoid misunderstandings. An added bonus is that the interpreter does not only know both languages, but also the underlying cultures. Interpreters will hence translate both the words and the cultural context.
If you speak the same language as your counterpart, but come from different countries, you are not out of the woods yet. Case in point are the differences between Dutch and Flemish (Belgian Dutch). One and the same word may mean something totally different. Even when you speak the same language, your should try to avoid slang and ask for clarification when something that was said does not make sense. You may have false friends interfering with the conversation.
Be extremely careful with humour. It is often said that jokes don’t translate and that is because well, they don’t. Moreover, in many cultures, it is not acceptable to crack jokes in a business context. Sarcasm, the basic ingredient of British humour, can be immensely funny if you are used to it. If you’re not, it can come across as an insult, or worse still, an attack. Most of all: avoid telling jokes about your colleague’s country, it is a slippery slope that will leave you crippled nine times out of ten.
The person opposite you may be just as nervous about wading in the murky cross-cultural waters as you are. There is no weakness in admitting that you are nervous because you do not want to mess up. Ask for feedback. This will give your counterpart the opportunity to help you along the way, and most of all, to connect with you. Vulnerability is, after all, human and something that everyone can relate to, wherever they come from.
Many books have been written about effective cross-cultural communication, and all these insights are very helpful. They should definitely be considered as parts of the puzzle, but not as absolute truths. Think of it: you may be French, and have the same cultural references as your fellow Frenchmen, but feel more comfortable with the English way of doing business. In cross-cultural communication, and indeed in communication as such, connecting is the objective. Language, both verbal and non-verbal, is the key. If you put the tools and partners in place to connect across cultures, you will start seeing hurdles as welcome challenges that help you reinforce the message you want to share.