For the better part of my career, I’ve worked in the United States and Latin America, where I went first as a missionary, then as an investment banker, and eventually as an equity analyst for Merrill Lynch. Going to and from there for work is now second nature for me. But over the past few months I’ve found myself doing more consulting in other places, including Turkey and Germany, and planning speaking trips in Singapore, Mauritius, and Australia. In these places, I often find myself back at square one, trying to decipher what it takes to successfully work across cultures.
I decided to sit down and think about what had worked so well for me in Latin America, and figure out if I could turn it into a generalizable principle that would help me in other cultures. Here’s my list:
Learn the language. This is not always possible, but when it is, there is no better way to communicate. Though I was born in Spain, I’m not a native Spanish speaker. But I know enough of the language to have social conversations, and even if the business discussions are most often conducted in English, my understanding of Spanish enhances my understanding of Spanish-speaking cultures. Even a limited understanding of another language helps us decode the culture — not just what is being said, but how other people feel. When we humble ourselves to learn another person’s language, we are acknowledging the value of that person; we signal that we find them worth an investment.
Learning the language can also have a revealing effect on us individually. Spanish, for example, is much more emotive than English, and I find I am much more animated and much bolder when speaking Spanish. It turns out that this kind of multicultural personality is a common phenomenon when communicating in a second (or third, etc.) language.
Genuinely enter the other person’s world. This is simpler, and more obvious, if the person you are dealing with is your client or someone you have to impress. It’s much harder to remember when you are the client or the person of higher status. Even when carrying a big stick, if you speak softly and remain sensitive to the person you’re dealing with, there’s a foundation for mutual respect.
Another way to enter a foreign world is to read about the culture — use your flight to read up on some local history, or sink into a memoir or even a novel. Though not always entirely accurate, it can nevertheless broaden your worldview.
Avoid jargon and employ body language. If you’re speaking your native tongue and your counterparts aren’t fluent in it, speak plainly. I’m not saying you should shout slowly at your interlocutor — that’s patronizing. But make clarity your principal objective. And always avoid sarcasm. As long as you’re respectful, most people will be willing to forgive the inevitable faux pas of the foreigner.
Be willing to ramp up your body language to convey that you like the people you’re dealing with and are pleased to be dealing with them. When I first went to Latin America, and understood very little, I began smiling more, as it was the only way I knew to communicate to people that I liked them. Of course, smiling is not the answer throughout the world, so study up on the cultural preferences and sensitivities of the locales in which you will be working.
Find a translator/interpreter. I recently spoke to a person inside a Fortune 50 company who was dealing with piracy issues in China. The person having the conversation was Turkish and was making absolutely no headway. Finally he got a developer colleague who was Chinese on the phone and the problem was resolved in five minutes.
“Localization” is a whole service industry dedicated to helping businesses adapt (localize) their products or services for individual targeted countries. Dave Hunt, a 40-year veteran of this industry, describes it this way: “Localization involves translation and much more beyond language.” For example, a social enterprise he knew of was offering cooking classes in a developing economy. In one of the early classes, the instructor started to pare a bushel of apples, only to discover that apples were considered a rare luxury — even a single apple was beyond the economic reach of the students. Localization specialists can help organizations avoid such mistakes, making a long-term cross-cultural business relationship more likely to succeed. In some cases legal requirements will make such a facilitator essential.
Share a meal. Obviously, this is difficult if you’re collaborating with someone with technology rather than face to face, but if you’re in their country, eat their traditional food. At home, share your traditional meal. Breaking bread together produces oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that strengthens feelings of connectedness and facilitates working together. In one set of experiments negotiators who shared a meal walked away with an average of $6.7 million more in deals than those who didn’t eat together.
Relish the diversity. It’s tempting to believe that always working within our own culture would be easier. Beyond the obvious limitations on our opportunities, it is sometimes more difficult. It can be easy to assume that we’re on the same page when we’re speaking the same language, when in fact we aren’t. This complacency is dangerous. The extra effort exerted to negotiate across differences is more frequently rewarded by breakthrough ideas.
It’s not always easy to work across cultures, but do the hard work of trotting across the globe intellectually, and you’ll find that you feel right at home.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review