The Essentials of Intercultural Communication
By Yehuda Mansell, Senior Language Coach at TriEnglish
Though her name means, “to envision the future” in Amharic, when she arrived in Israel at the age of 12, Yityish (Titi) Aynaw could not have predicted that in less than 10 years she would be considered the most beautiful woman in Israel, and would be dining with heads of state, invited personally by her childhood hero, US President Barack Obama, and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Now, if I told you that you had been invited by two high-profile world leaders to attend a State banquet a month from now, how would you spend those two weeks preparing? Logically, you would determine appropriate clothing choices: white or black tie, evening gown, or simple black dress. You would review protocols for titles and desperately brush-up on your dinner etiquette and international awareness. And hopefully, you would plan for anticipated conversations and appropriate small-talk.
However, some of us would panic, not even knowing where to begin. But we would all agree that it would be inconceivable to “wing-it” and simply hope for the best. And yet, in our day-to-day business relationships we encounter important people and somehow believe we can bluff our way through international business behavior and still be successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our preparation is key; our willingness to learn is our greatest strength!
After all, we live in a global village. Technology has enabled us to communicate easily using many different devices and systems. Travel is relatively easy, and we can go to nearly anywhere on the planet in less than 24 hours; in some ways, the world has become very small.
And while the world grows smaller and becomes more homogenous, it still remains very diverse and complex, and there is still much to explore and much to learn. While English is the predominate language of business, we can’t assume that just because people speak the same language that they easily understand one another, or that behavior and etiquette are universal. They are not!
For example, did you know that Germany, Asia, the UK, North America and the Middle East all have very different ideas about what a good handshake is? And if done poorly, you can misrepresent yourself or worse, offend others. In general, a firm handshake is much better than a “dead-fish-like” handshake (laying a loose hand in the hand of the person in front of you).
Then there is the tricky business of knowing how formal or casual to behave. Israeli culture is famously relaxed and favors horizontal business hierarchies and the ability to “think outside of the box”, and this kind of behavior tends to be rewarded, especially in the Israeli hi-tech industry. But in some international contexts, this relaxed behavior is seen as irresponsible or disrespectful. Being able to ask good questions about the company or organization you are about to visit can help prepare you for what is appropriate.
In Asian culture, business relationships are seen as long-term investments and, as a result, more time might be invested in entertainment and food (building the relationship) than actual discussion about the business at hand. Knowing this ahead of time is essential when entertaining Asian business partners. Interestingly, the opposite is generally true in German business culture, where lavish hospitality can be viewed as wasteful and frivolous, and would be viewed as a negative element. A hybrid of both ideas is seen in North American behavior, which tends to prefer “working lunches” and getting “down to business”. However, in off-hours, hospitality is appreciated and expected.
Wise men have said that in life you should assume nothing, except perhaps to assume that there is much you can learn, and that a little preparation, mostly in the way of asking good questions, can be the difference between being an intercultural star or an embarrassing faux pas.
So, after winning the 2013 Miss Israel Pageant, Titi was invited personally by her childhood hero, US President Barack Obama to dine with him and Shimon Peres at a State function. Titi wisely enlisted the help of Patricia, one of TriEnglish Senior Business English Coaches, to prepare her for that encounter in all aspects, and she did so diligently. One of the first sentences she learned was: “Mr. President, it’s such an honor to meet you!”, accompanied by a firm handshake. In the end, she was well-prepared and charmed all who met her.
Great things are in store for Titi and she certainly has the skills and grace to seize her moment. What exciting things does the future hold for you? And will you be prepared to encounter your next intercultural learning adventure?