Sense and Sensitivity
A little more thought can go along way to building better client relationships and project teams across cultures
Eat has spent 20 year working on cross-cultural projects and most of our team have spent part of their lives in a non-native environment. A big takeaway from this is that it's often the little things that make a big difference to the success of a project, a client relationship or the effectiveness of a team. Sometimes a little less of "what I want to say" and a bit more thought to how others see the business at hand can impact enormously on getting a successful outcome. This is further amplified when most meetings and collaborations are taking place online. What follows is a short list of things to think about. Obvious maybe, but it's surprising how often they are overlooked.
However fluent you are in a second (or third) language, communication always takes more energy, especially in business where misunderstandings can have big consequences. Teleconferencing, where non verbal communication such as body language and facial expressions are less easy to gauge, make things worse. Familiarise yourself with the language abilities of the people you are working with and adapt your style accordingly. Slow down the pace of the meeting or call, introduce more recaps and breaks to allow people to reflect/review their notes in their own language before responding. And always remember to hit that record button on calls, so participants can review later at their own pace.
Fluency in the language doesn't mean a person sees the world or thinks in the same way as you. Cultural norms and business etiquette can be very different from country to country. One of many examples from our early days: A western colleague asks a Japanese colleague to take on additional tasks. The Japanese colleague responds yes but assumes an understanding that there will be a delay in delivering their other work. The western colleague is confused as to why delivery has slid, because the delay was not explicitly stated. Never assume and don’t be afraid to reiterate expectations.
Be clear about a meeting's purpose and what is expected from participants. Be clear on the takeaways and 'to-dos' for all involved. Ideally follow up with everyone and confirm in writing (see point above). Ensure everyone has a chance to speak and do your best to avoid interruptions.
What's happening in the country your client or partners are working from? When are their national holidays? What are their normal working hours? What's the time difference? Has a typhoon or earthquake just hit? What are the Covid rules in place (in both company and country)? Has the city shut down due to protests? (We have an office in Hong Kong). A sensitivity to these things can reap enormous rewards. People really appreciate the consideration and you are always going to get more out of someone who has had a good nights sleep.
Finally, what software are you using? Some tools are more popular than others in different markets and not everyone has the same familiarity (If you are not in Japan, you might not want to be forced to use Line). Ensure there’s a standard platform used with your colleagues to avoid additional technical-stress and frustration when joining calls.
This list comes from the heart. We are challenged by these issues every day and don't always get it right. Here's to more effective communication – and better business.