Globalization has brought everyone in one global market where people from different ethnicity and life styles communicate in one culture which is called business culture. But still we all struggle when we communicate with a person of different culture. Culture means a way of life for a group of people. It defines what is acceptable. Culture is a set of shared ideas about how to live and how to get along with people. I have been asked about the cultural differences in business dealings regularly by my clients in workshops.
Learning about diversity is an opportunity to develop new ways of thinking and new perspectives. For any business to succeed, employees need to be able to adapt to new or ambiguous situations and learn new standards and practices. Understanding multicultural diversity helps you increase your job satisfaction and increase customer satisfaction by recognizing variations in customer needs, values, and beliefs. Understanding will help you communicate despite accent and language differences.
Several studies have shown that the success of international business depends largely on employees’ intercultural communication competence. Employees need to adjust communication skills to fit cross-cultural needs. Businesses must develop a culture of inclusiveness to achieve their goals. The building blocks of this culture are empowerment and education to enable employees to reach their potential, corporate flexibility to meet customer and employee needs, and open two-way communication to promote information and opinion sharing.
Cultures differ on what is beautiful, ugly, humorous, risqué, and embarrassing. Culture determines what foods are considered edible, what foods are taboo, and what foods taste good. We differ on what is appropriate personal hygiene and clothing. Colors mean different things in different cultures. Culture affects logistical needs in terms of money, transportation, measurements, and sizing. People in many other countries think Americans are backward because we do not use the metric system. Imagine their confusion with our measuring system. They think using feet and inches is rather strange.
Remember that our standards are culturally influenced as well. We queue and consider cutting in line rude. In other countries, they crowd, and first shove, first serve wins. We should not take cultural slights personally. They are a reflection of cultural background and not meant to offend. For example, men from some other cultures are not accustomed to dealing with women as equals or professionals. Therefore, we should not take offense if they treat women differently.
Most non-Western cultures value harmony and balance, and so people avoid direct or negative confrontations and believe in saving face to minimize embarrassment. They believe that maintaining group harmony is more important than expressing personal opinions. In over two-thirds of non-American cultures, the needs of the group, company, or family are more important than the needs of an individual. This is the very opposite of mainstream American culture. Americans think they should express their opinion even if it is in opposition to the beliefs of others in the group. In general, mainstream Americans believe in planning and controlling the future and bringing about change. We believe new ideas and new ways of doing things are usually beneficial. This is not the case in most other cultures. Other cultures use history as a guide for the present and believe tradition should be maintained.
The art of listening and speaking is greatly valued in many Hispanic, black, and Asian cultures. You may have had the experience with someone who fidgets, picks up papers, and turns his back momentarily to look at something while you are talking. How did you feel? You probably felt as if the person was not listening. He would tell you that he heard everything you said. You don’t believe it though, because he was not attentive. This may offend in not only some cultural situations but also based on gender and regional origin.
Body language is more important to people from other cultures than it is to mainstream Americans. There are many different meanings in eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, body movement, and proxemics. Determine the customers’ culture, and learn the critical nonverbal differences. A smile is understood almost universally as a sign of goodwill. However, whom we smile at, how often we smile, and under what circumstances we smile does vary. We think service providers should smile and make friendly conversation with customers, whereas in other cultures providers should be reserved and respectful toward customers. We consider service providers as equals. Elsewhere they may be seen as a different social class. Cultures differ on whether browsing, touching merchandise, and trying on apparel is acceptable.
If you are not able to understand customers because of a foreign accent, it is okay to tactfully tell them you are having difficulty. Ask if they will slow down a little bit so you can get all the information correct. Do not pretend to understand if you do not. Take the time and listen to the pattern of speech so you will be able to pick up a few key words. There is no need to repeat one word over and over. Be careful how you say you can’t understand. An abrupt “I can’t understand you” or “What did you say?” is rude. Keep job aids available for translations.
It is the spirit of etiquette that matters, not the letter. It is all right to ask about etiquette differences. It is okay to observe the other person’s actions. If you genuinely make an effort and make a mistake out of ignorance, it is all right to apologize. A mistake is often overlooked out of embarrassment or pride, and people may deny they were offended, but an apology will be heard and appreciated.
Learn how your customers prefer to be addressed. Koreans write their last name first, but when they come to the United States, they reverse it to fit in. Some countries do not use last names. Ask, “How would you like me to address you?” Even if you must ask more than once, pronounce names correctly. Do not give someone a nickname just because it’s easier. Americans believe that using first names is friendly; in other cultures, first names are disrespectful. Americans assume we can address anyone in a group. Elsewhere, whom it is acceptable to address is based on age and gender. Be formal until you are told differently. Avoid assuming anything.
What is it like to speak English or another language as a second language? People may be anxious about being misunderstood, feel inexperienced, or be passive and not ask questions when they should. When immigrants speak their native language among themselves around people who do not understand it, it is a misconception that they are trying to exclude outsiders. The real reason is that they feel less isolated, it’s easier, and it reduces stress. Speaking a new language is a strain.
We may assume someone who cannot speak our language does not understand it. The truth is that it is easier to understand than it is to speak it. Those of us who have learned another language know that pronunciation is the toughest part. In addition, speakers often confuse pronouns, mispronounce words, use incorrect words and endings, and have different voice intonation and inflection stressing inappropriate words or syllables and speaking in a different rhythm. How do you react to an accent? Do you assume the person is uneducated, not assimilated into the culture, and ignorant of grammar?
Americans believe that it’s all right to point out an employee’s mistake or complain. In other cultures, it is inappropriate because the service provider would lose face. Asian and Hispanic customers tend to complain in much softened terms. Asians consider it wrong to say anything negative. To save face, an unhappy Asian customer will just disappear even more quietly than a mainstream American customer. If you ask directly if everything is satisfactory, you may not be able to tell if it really is or if it is a vague answer to cover up real dissatisfaction.
Companies need to increase the cultural literacy and sensitivity of their employees. Education will help them adjust their customer service behavior. We need to familiarize ourselves with the cultures we serve and learn about their values, attitudes, and norms. Their perceptions, how they see the world, are based on their culture. Many people believe that different means wrong. We cannot assume our “common sense” is everyone’s common sense. If we make judgments about people and do not make an effort to see beyond stereotypes, we will be unable to provide our customers with exceptional service. Realize that everyone is different in some way. None of us sees the world in exactly the same way. The bottom line is that everyone should receive respectful, fair treatment. We should be polite and conduct ourselves professionally. Character traits to develop are open-mindedness, tolerance, adaptability, a sense of humor, curiosity, empathy, and respect.