How to prepare for intercultural communication

One of the best jobs I ever had was working in Brussels, negotiating for the UK with the European Union.

One of the exciting benefits of this globalised world is the opportunity to work with people from different cultures.

But this brings with it certain complexities - not just of language, but also of culture.

So how can you best prepare for these interactions, to get the most out of them (and avoid any unhelpful faux pas…)?

There are three different ways to approach this.

First, prepare your mindset.

1. Clarify the bigger picture

Before you start looking at the differences, clarify your shared purpose.

Why are you having this interaction?

What is that you are both hoping to achieve?

Once you’ve done this (and if you can bear it in mind), you are enabling your commonalities to be stronger than your differences.

2. Clarify your intention

Your shared purpose might be to agree a contract for services.

However, within that you will have your own intention: to get a particular deal.

Make sure you know what this is, and why it matters to you.

Again, this will help keep you in the room feeling positive about overcoming any differences (rather than letting differences get the better of you).

3. Think about your cultural behaviours

Self-awareness is key.

This, all with all interactions, will be a two-way process: aspects of the other culture might be strange to you, but aspects of your culture will certainly be strange to the other!

So take some time to think about what these might be.

For example, British modesty could be misinterpreted as lack of confidence in yourself or your service.

And British reserve (not being into displays of emotion or physical contact) could be perceived by some as being cold or stand-offish.

Next, do your homework…

4. Research their work culture

Different cultures mean different work traditions.

For example, before a visit from Japanese officials I read about how to exchange business cards: rather than casually with one hand, business cards are presented with two hands (one at each end) and a slight bow.

It is much more formal, and shows respect to the other person.

This is a classic example of something which a small bit of googling will tell you - and which could save you causing a misunderstanding, or even offence.

Do think also about the ways in which these work traditions are likely to rub up against yours.

Some of them you can treat with “positive indifference” - i.e. accept that this is something that matters to them, and doesn’t matter that much to you, so you can go along with it to make the other party happy (what you might see as an excessive emphasis on reporting to KPIs, for example).

Some might be a major contradiction in a way that you both work - which needs understanding and teasing out before you start (for example, micro-managing work styles versus empowering work-styles).

You will either need to choose one approach or the other, or agree a compromise.

But these things are always better neutralised in advance, before they become a major issue.

5. Research key dates

No-one in the UK would expect to do business on 26th December.

But if you are not from a country with a Christian population, the fact of Boxing Day might not be well known.

The same will be true for the other culture: you are unlikely to know about key dates, key holidays, or key festivals.

A quick google will save you getting annoyed about a lack of email replies (on 4th July, for example).

6. Research some history

I know I am a former historian, but a little Wikipedia search on the relevant country will not go amiss in aiding your understanding.