Don’t point your finger in the Phillipines and other helpful tips when working abroad

Sign trip. Group ticket and passport, holidays abroad

Sign trip. Group ticket and passport, holidays abroad

Over one-third, or nearly 110 million, Americans now hold passports.  That’s 15 times the number that held passports in 1989.  We’re on the move!  A big reason for that jump is that passports are now required to travel to Canada and Mexico, but I suspect that the globalized economy is also contributing to this growth.
Most large companies offer some kind of cultural training and for the uninitiated, it can be quite overwhelming.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind when booking your trip.

Don’t point your finger in the Philippines

or show the soles of your feet in the UAE or make the okay sign in Greece.

Body language is the most potent form of communication.  Their eyes may be saying yes, but their slumped figure and stifled yawns speak volumes.  Americans may not use as many hand gestures as other cultures, but we do have our own signature moves.  We smile big, walk quickly and make a lot of eye contact.  Our reputation is friendly and while some cultures find that openness a little goofy (hey, it’s their words!) others find it charming.  But our friendliness has its parameters.  Our “body radius” (the distance between ourselves and others that we feel comfortable with) is larger than expected for some.  We’re not as comfortable with physical touching as other cultures – the kiss on both cheeks we may receive in Italy or the platonic, same-sex hand-holding in India.

As a learning leader, how do we help people prepare for the differences in body language?  Here’s a nice exercise to do during a training class.

The conceit is that everyone in the class is at a cocktail party.  They’re going to have to stand up and mingle, make small talk and get to know the other guests.  The instructions state that everyone just has to act as themselves.  The twist is that everyone has received a small piece of paper on it with different physical cues they have to enact without telling anyone else what that cue is.  A few people will get “stand close to the person that you’re speaking to” while others will get “stand far apart”.  Some will get “don’t make eye contact” or “speak very quietly” and the opposite actions will go to others.  Let the exercise run a little longer than comfortable (5-7 minutes for example).

While the participants are aware that everyone has a different cue they’re acting out, the purpose isn’t for them to guess what that is, but to experience what it feels like to speak with someone who has slightly different body cues than they’re comfortable with.  At first people will laugh self-consciously, then they’ll get into it and THEN they’ll start fidgeting.

When you debrief, try to solicit what were the things that made people uncomfortable and the impressions they were forming of their colleagues.  Though simple, this experiential exercise is a powerful way to help people understand their own preferences.

Want to grab a beer after work or have tea before work?

Americans tend to be more task-oriented than relationship-oriented.  We contextualize our surroundings and think if we’re all at work, that’s enough to get started with.  An American traveling in relationship-oriented cultures tend to focus on the work first.  Out come the project plans, team expectations, roles and responsibilities.  Once the team gets to know each other a little better, then maybe we can schedule a happy hour after work one day.

Even those of us with an understanding that relationships are absolutely critical in other cultures, we tend to shortcut the process.  Maybe for the first 15 minutes, we’re ok talking about our families or asking questions about where someone is from or the number of kids they have.  But then we move into work mode.

We also tend to put a lot of trust in words – contracts, service level agreements, performance expectations.

In relationship cultures, it’s the personal trust that matters first and foremost.  If I believe that you as a person are authentic and sincere, I can make deals with a handshake.  And how can I know that unless I have the opportunity to get to know you as a person?  If you’re working in Korea, get ready to spend your nights eating and drinking with your colleagues.  And not just one or two nights, every night.

Families are very important.  In India, we have family days when parents, siblings, children and spouses come to visit the office.  Their stamp of approval does more than corporate engagement events to cement fidelity to the organization.

Americans tend to have separate circles – work, family, school, neighborhoods, religion – and it starts to feel like an infringement when asked to spend time with or reveal personal details to our work friends.  But it is essential in relationship oriented cultures to get to know the person.  Or you may be fooled into thinking your sales pitch or project is going well until the moment it’s not.

Learn to love the sound of silence

Some cultures are very comfortable with silence.  Americans are not.

There’s an old story about how an American sales team went to Japan hoping to pitch a deal.  They had a very firm offer price – let’s say it was $1,000,000.  They planned, strategized and poured over the financials and walked into the meeting feeling confident.

After the pitch, they came to the offer price.  It was received in silence.  Unnerved by  what felt like an extended silence, the senior partner offered a 10% reduction.  When that didn’t receive an immediate reaction, it went down another 10%.  Before it was done, they had carved off over 40% from their firm offer.

Much later, one of the Japanese managers told the American partner that they had been happy with the $1,000,000 price.  They were just thinking about it and waiting for their senior manager to respond.  They were astounded when the sales team immediately lowered the price.  In fact, it made them feel like the Americans had intended to cheat them until they realized that the sales team was just nervous.  They had a good laugh about it, but guess which side wasn’t laughing on the inside?

There’s a reason that Indian call centers train their staff to patter on while answering a query.  Americans tend to get cranky when someone doesn’t respond immediately  and even though we know the person is probably looking up the answer, we still like it if the person can chat with us.

If you’re managing a project, you may begin to wonder about the guy or gal who never speaks.  What impression are you walking away with?  Passive?  Uninterested?  Not smart?  Certainly not positive traits.

Here’s the thing to remember.  There may be a myriad of reasons why it’s quiet.  The other person may feel it’s rude to speak before the senior person speaks.  Or they may be thinking.  Or they may think the question is rhetorical.  Or they want to wait until they know the answer is right.

You may not lose $400,00 but you may be missing out on some great ideas if you try to fill the silence with your own patter.

Remember, silence can be golden.

Your way is only “a” way

Forget everything else written here.  Truly.  There are a million facts you’ll need to know, you’ll never remember them and you’ll certainly make a misstep.  I mean, do take a class, read a book, find a event where you could learn more about a culture, try out a local restaurant before you leave.

Be prepared.  That also means be prepared to make a mistake.  After all, people know and like when a visitor is trying, curious and appreciative of a new culture and are very forgiving.  Wouldn’t you be?

The only thing you have to remember is that you too have preferences and styles that are unusual for other cultures.  Our way isn’t the right way, it’s only one way.

The best thing you can take away from a cultural competency course is recognizing your own reactions.  If you start getting uncomfortable or even irritable, stop and consider if your reaction is possibly a reaction to confronting a new culture.  Then take a deep breath.

It really will be okay.  I guarantee that when you come back from your trip or assignment, you will long remember how alive you felt and how much you learned.

And hey, even if you step in it, you’ll have a great story to tell at the next happy hour.

2 thoughts on “Don’t point your finger in the Phillipines and other helpful tips when working abroad

  1. Excellent ! Well written, and brings out the essence of various cultures in a global setting. So very important for the so called Global Managers not only to be aware of, but to behave appropriately in various settings too. Trust, as Sonia says is paramount and Power of Silence is remarkable – need to first understand and then be understood.
    Success to me comes from Relationships + Reputation + Results and no longer comes due to one or the other but as Sum of all parts. As someone said, If I had to give up one between Strategy and Culture, I would give up Strategy. And, the one thing Culture has in common globally, You cannot delegate it !

    Sonia, way to go !

  2. I’ve spent a lot of time around Afghan Pashtuns and Iraqi Arabs, two groups with a very strong relationship orientation. It isn’t just businesses that achieve results through shared meals and small talk and sharing family photos – it is nations as well. Sharing cups of chai and talking about children has done more to win the “Global War on Terror” than all the bullets, grenades, bombs, artillery and mortar shells, and rockets I have expended in 26 very busy months in that part of the world. Wars are won by cups of tea and conversation. Little wonder, I suppose, that the same should be true of business. Great post.

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