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Let’s say that you are thinking about going international. You would like to set your business or association abroad and expand your boundaries. Surely, as a professional, regardless to the industry sector, you have already found yourself in the situation of dealing with interlocutors from different cultures. You know that nowadays, it is unavoidable. Hence, it is essential to understand the role of intercultural communication to enhance your business opportunities and to get a favourable ground to go global.

Multiculturalism is a very popular concept in Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the United-Kingdom or Canada. Despite the fact that it has not been yet fully included in France and Belgium, your business can get crucial advantages from it! This social approach is essential in relations with people from other countries, achieving a mutual appreciation and avoiding useless misunderstandings. Follow our guide!

Knowing the language? It is not enough!

As the terms suggest, “intercultural communication” refers to the interactions between people or groups of people from different cultures or backgrounds. This “intercultural” adjective refers to culture, social and historical backgrounds or environments, habits, attitudes, values and standards, not forgetting the personal subjectivity and individual experiences, which shape our way of behave or way of thinking! This is a central concept in business relationships, including colleagues, customers, suppliers, partners and all the other stakeholders.

A little taste of intercultural differences

Let’s be clear on this – there is no room here for prejudices or common places. Generalisation is a mad beast! Hereafter, we propose some examples to provide few commonly observed trends.

Hierarchy: relations between employees and employers are not experienced in the same way in Europe, Asia and the United States. The hierarchy is strongly marked in France, with a vertical structure and distance between employers and employees. In China, the hierarchy is authoritarian. An employee would never object to her/his superior. You may be familiar with the dialogue between two HR Directors, one French and the other one Chinese: «Are you telling me that you ever object to your manager? What about him asking you to jump from the 5th floor of a building, what do you do?» «I will look for compromises». In the Anglo-Saxon world, roles distance is less marked. The use of the first name among employees and employers is usual: the cooperation culture is premium.

Speaking during a meeting: in China, not speaking during a meeting does not create any sense of embarrassment or discomfort – it is just a sign that the non-commenting person decided to step back on a certain issue. On the other hand, French and Italian people tend to interrupt speakers very often. Finally, English people and Germans are more organised and participate whenever it is their turn to speak.

Be on time: in Germany, a meeting begins and ends as scheduled, while Spanish, Italians, French… let’s say they creatively interpret schedules!

Physical distance: Japanese people and Germans tend to keep a greater physical distance. On the contrary, Latin cultures are more physical.

These differences can lead to mistaken conclusions about people and shatter business relationships. Therefore, it happens that Germans and Dutch become “hard to deal with” and “wary”, or that French and Italians are called “seductive” or even “manipulative”.

To overcome prejudices, it is very important to address intercultural relations with a certain spirit.

Skills for a successful intercultural communication

Open-mindedness: you get aware about any possible cultural differences, which you are more likely to face with: individualism, collectivism, self-image… – Decentralise: you are aware of your own cultural identity and your approach to the world. Having a clear and secure self-identification – by identifying you as a particular kind of person (e.g. “I consider myself a self-communication professional”) you can be more open to interaction with members of other cultures. Conversely, if you feel vulnerable, you will develop a sense of anxiety about this type of interactions. – Empathy: you join conversations with other people. You put myself in their place, you take into account their perspectives and points of view. You learn about their culture, you listen without judging and you get to know their non-verbal behaviours. The goal is to achieve the “convergence” through which people “accommodate”, adapting their communicative behaviour to make it more similar to that of their interlocutors. For instance, one of my colleagues systematically imitates his conversation partner’s accent. This allows him to feel closer and perhaps to facilitate contact with them and get their approval. – Negotiation: you propose a compromise to resolve conflicts, respecting the cultural identity of each one.

How do you approach intercultural relations within your organisation? Share your experience and feel free to ask us questions!

by Séverine Duprat



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