Awkward situations and inappropriate language pepper cross cultural work partnerships. Ignorance about each other’s cultural footprint or an assumption that “we are all similar” can in fact derail otherwise effective partnerships. In recent times, Indian firms are partnering more with other countries such as USA, Germany, The UK and Japan. An orientation to each other’s culture can prevent heartburns and divorced relationships. It is necessary to understand that culture to make interactions effective. Most times people assume that people from other countries are just like them and take little effort to get to know their colleagues. When the partnership goes kaput as a result, they are at a loss. Here are a few things to keep in mind that could make or break international partnerships.
Watch boundaries: As Indians, we do not understand personal boundaries. In an introductory meeting we usually tend to ask people we meet about families, marriage, age, religious beliefs and practices etc. because these are acceptable in our country. However, others , especially , the British and Germans and Americans prefer not to discuss these topics which they consider extremely personal. Even if one has met the colleagues before, one should refrain from broaching these topics and maybe talk about neutral topics like the weather, traffic, food or sports
Be Punctual: We all joke about Indian Stretchable time. However it can be very annoying when some is turning up late all the time. Punctuality is the way of the global world and the sooner we learn it the better. Coming late for meetings is an indication of sloppiness, lack of seriousness and commitment. Blaming the traffic has become a habit with most Indians, but if one knows beforehand that traffic can be unreliable, care must be taken to plan for contingencies.
Be Independent: In the US, families expect children to be very independent. One can see this in child rearing practices. When a child falls down, American parents usually do not rush to pick up the child and sympathize. Instead they will encourage the child to get up and carry on with the activity. Similarly in an office setting Americans expect initiative and independence. You are expected to ask for anything you need and fend for yourself whether it is coffee, supplies or time with the supervisor. Independent thought is encouraged and considered desirable. Dependence is seen as professional incompetence.
Be Assertive: The Indian habit of saying yes to avoid confrontation is construed as dishonesty. Indians hesitate to speak out and end up making commitments even when they know that a deadline or a task is not possible. Indians tend to hold back individual opinions lest they hurt someone’s feelings or cause annoyance. However this can be misunderstood as a a lack of commitment to common goals. Differences of opinions at work should be treated as intellectual discussions. Disagreement does not necessarily indicate conflict.
Be aware of hierarchical protocols : Otherwise known as power distance, Cultures which foster either a short or long power distances. When one cultivates equality the power distance reduces. The belief in equality is directly proportionate to the number of human rights movements and anti discrimination legislations. Awareness of the kind of power distance that exists in different cultures is crucial. For Instance in the far eastern countries of Japan, China and Korea, organizations have rigid expectations of behaviour based on hierarchy. Speaking to a subordinate in the prescence of his or her boss is a faux pas. In the western cultures, while it is necessary to show respect to supervisors, they are very comfortable with first names and might feel embarrassed at effusive shows of respect often misunderstood as sycophancy.
Be well -groomed: Professional dressing in India is more casual than it is in the US. I t is important to wear appropriately formal clothes in the initial meetings. Body odour or an unkempt look is repulsive. Make good use of deodorants and razors before meetings. Dental hygiene is another area of improvement. Loud colours and prints must be avoided by both men and women.
Be sensitive to the requirements of diversity: Organizations across the world are more sensitive to the requirements of a diverse workforce. All people male or female, young or old should be treated equally. Concessions should not be made for women simply on account of their gender. A firm handshake with eye contact is expected whether you are greeting a man or a woman. Keep physical distance of at least two feet from people you are talking to as Americans like their space.
Mind your table manners: Believe it or not, poor eating etiquette can break a contract before you can say contract. It is useful to train employees in acceptable table manners so customers, clients or colleagues are not repelled. A few points to keep in mind are –
• Wait until everyone has been served before you start eating
• Bring your food to the mouth not the head to the plate
• Keep your elbows off the table
• Do not talk with food in your mouth
• DO not make noise when you chew your food
• Use the fork, knife and spoon provided appropriately. It is a good idea to take some lessons on the right utensils to use if you are travelling to the USA.
As I often tell participants in my training programs, there is no room for discussion of right and wrong here. It is a matter of beliefs. Each culture differs in what they think is the best approach to managing self and situations. Behavioural practices reflect the fact that each country values behaviour that is often diametrically opposite.