Adapting your style to the norms of another culture isn’t being inauthentic – it’s just smart business.
“Don’t you even care enough about me to write your name?”
If you’ve ever written a short email response with no greeting or signature line to someone from another culture, you might have triggered this response. The quote above was a pet peeve voiced by a Russian attending a seminar by Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map. A professor at international business school INSEAD, Meyer expertly highlights the importance of cultural differences.
“If you go into every interaction assuming that culture doesn’t matter, your default mechanism will be to view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly,” she writes.
For business owners in a globalized world who may one day find themselves negotiating with vendors in Asia, building a new business partnership in Europe or simply leading a diverse team, cultural competence is key. It might mean the difference between a successful negotiation or launch in a new market and a failed one.
Big-box blunders abroad:
Walmart in Germany: The discount retailer’s famous greeters were a put-off in Germany. It was one of many factors that led to all stores in the country closing in 2006.
Home Depot in China: The company disregarded the fact that much of their audience sees DIY as a signal of poverty. All stores were shuttered within six years, the last in 2012.
A good place to start learning about cultural differences is the “What’s Your Cultural Profile” quiz Meyer put together at the Harvard Business Review. You can also try reading The Culture Map or Leading with Cultural Intelligence, the latter by David Livermore, who leads the Cultural Intelligence Center in Michigan.
Livermore details on his blog the many cross-cultural behaviors that could be interpreted as rude. The list is long, everything from looking a superior in the eye (offensive in Nigeria) to not looking someone in the eye (offensive in Canada).
The truth is, all of us need to work on our cross-border business etiquette. “Most all of us adapt how we dress, behave and talk based on the situation. We should do the same thing during intercultural encounters,” Livermore wrote. A keen sense of observation will get you far. “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more and speak less,” Meyer advises.
Making the effort to respect another person’s culture can be the secret sauce that helps you build strong business relationships. Somewhere out there, success is just a proper email signoff away.