Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Cultural misunderstanding, or just being rude?

How can you tell if you have just made some huge intercultural faux pas, or if the person you are talking to is just being rude?

When I think about my fellow Brits, I see that some of them I instinctively like, some I’m fairly neutral about, and there are a very few with whom, for no particular reason, I can find no common ground and it is an effort to be civil to them. There are one or two others who are deliberately and obviously rude (and not just to me). If I have to do business with people you find rude, it is important to find out as quickly as possible whether you are making some horrible cultural mistake that is offending them, and that everyone is too embarrassed to tell you about, or whether there is a personal dislike – I suppose the latter is much rare, but is potentially more damaging to a business relationship.

My advice is simple

  • Ask: either colleagues you trust or friends;
  • Look: how other people react to this person;
  • Listen: even if conversations are in a different language, you can probably tell if this person’s answers are more abrupt than conversations between other people, or you can tell by his/her tone and intonation that there is some other issue.

The most common situation is that there is some cultural issue, which is exacerbated by personality blocking full communication. As an example, an anecdote from an anonymous client recently: a large business services company employed a Saudi manager who had a huge reputation, was highly recommended for his client care and had been marked for accelerated promotion. However within his first month at the company he had lost a very important client. A quick phone call to the client established that he had gone into a meeting room, and asked the woman seated at the table to bring him a cup of coffee, and then sent her back to bring some more sugar. You can probably guess that the woman concerned was the decision maker for the project and was very upset at being treated this way. It is a stereotype (but nonetheless true) that a lot of Saudi’s are uncomfortable dealing with women in business, and those from wealthy families may be used to treating women as servants in a business environment. HOWEVER it is standard business practice (and common sense) to establish to whom you are talking, before you make assumptions, even more so when visiting a client’s office. It is a matter of politeness not to assume that anyone who might be in the room is there to provide you with drinks, and especially when not in your home country you should be more circumspect and more polite in dealing with people you don’t know.

It is also true that excessive politeness can cause embarrassment to both parties, but I would suggest that the embarrassment is significantly less damaging than causing even a small amount of offence to a potential or existing client. The above anecdote also shows how even a tiny amount of preparation can help. IF the Saudi had found out in advance the gender of the person he was meeting; IF he had been a little more culturally aware; IF he had been prepared to work in a different culture; then perhaps…

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