Take a look at the people in your company; the people you buy products from or the services that cater to your needs. Think about your neighbors and community members. Chances are these people are a blend of nationalities, cultures and religions. The United States has long been called a “melting pot” and, according to research, the diversity is only going to increase.
This multicultural atmosphere not only affects our daily lives, but also our companies and the way we do business. Maybe you never actually cross an ocean to work with a person from another country, but whether you realize it or not, you are still working and selling globally. This includes the business you do over the phone, on the Internet, in a meeting, or over a meal. So how can you build stronger relationships with a diverse clientele? What can you do to understand these cultures and improve the way you do business?
Many companies, even those headquartered in another country, have become very westernized. They want to do business in the U.S. and get the edge over their competition. They tend to dress like we do, shake hands like we do and they have adopted our style of work and ethics. But their ties run deep to their own country and culture, so in return they hope we respect their traditions.
Here are a few ways to improve your cultural protocol and improve your business with customers who have ties to other cultures.
- Religion: Understand their culture. Religion in other cultures is often the basis for their work and existence. Respect other peoples’ religious holidays and be aware of the days they celebrate so it doesn’t conflict with a major deadline or important meeting.
- Family: Family is also a major factor in their structure. Be respective of the time they want to spend with their family, and work within an agreed upon schedule.
- Language: Avoid the use of slang. It doesn’t look professional and often times, people from other cultures will not understand. We all tend to have certain accents and local “sayings,” so take care not to constantly bring these words or phrases into the conversation.
- Appearance: Be aware of the way you look and dress. Make sure you are appropriately dressed for your meetings and even social gatherings. Many cultures still adhere to business dress. If your associate arrives in a coat and tie for a meeting and you show up in jeans, even though you may never give your appearance a second thought, it will definitely be noticed by your associate. Status and respect in many countries is judged by appearance. Many businesspeople from other cultures will judge your ability on your first impression so be aware of what image you are projecting.
Dress conservatively. Watch low-cut dresses or blouses, excessively tight or form fitting clothes, heels that way too high and skirts or dresses that are too short. You don’t need to change your entire dress style, but show respect if you know that more exposure to body parts would make your associate uncomfortable. Just possibly covering your shoulders, knees or elbows could make an appreciated difference.
- Body language and gestures can also be very disturbing and can interrupt the dialogue between your discussions. Keep all motions and gestures to a minimum. Over exaggerating, raising your voice, trying to rush a decision or showing no interest in their conversation can, of course, jeopardize your future business with these associates. Gestures that we take for granted can mean something totally different and could even be rude and offensive to another culture.
- Be careful of meeting times and dates: Most other countries use a 24-hour clock
to tell time. They are accustomed to our clock, but give them a moment to register and clarify if they are hesitant. Try very hard to speak in military time. It will be appreciated. Also, remember other countries generally put the month before the day when listing times. We list month/day/year. They list day/month/year. Again, clarify ahead of time so you are arriving on the correct day, correct month and at the correct time. You can even spell out the month to avoid any confusion.
- Eating: Learn to eat in the continental style by keeping your knife in your right hand and fork in the left. Avoid talking and chewing at the same time, and take your time eating. Enjoy the meal and place your silverware on the plate during discussions. Don’t rush into business as soon as you sit down. Enjoy the conversation and allow your host to begin the business conversation.
Avoid spreading out your materials on the table. This is a meal, not a conference table. Keep everything in a portfolio that can easily be placed on your lap or underneath your chair. Come with condensed and well-prepared material if needed for the meeting. Again, make it easy for your client to handle by placing the information in their folder. Order easy-to-eat food so you can concentrate on your clients and the discussions, instead of focusing on eating ribs or lobster.
- How well are you serving these clients? Most cultures stress service and leadership. They won’t point, they will not scream to a person in another office to get their attention and they would not consider being disrespectful intentionally to you in front of other associates. Being kind and considerate of all people no matter what culture should be your first interest.
As a business in today’s marketplace, your company needs to stay competitive. Learning how to work with and be respectful of other cultures can provide that extra edge. Even if you are not traveling overseas to do business, the U.S. provides ample opportunities for multicultural business transactions each day. By following these guidelines, you can provide better service and products to your diverse clientele and put your business ahead of the competition.