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Decoding Culture When Working Outside the U.S.
by Gilda Bonanno

Culture dictates all manner of behavior, including greetings, introductions, gifts, meals, exchange of business cards, eye contact, etc.  When traveling outside of the country, you need to be aware of the behavioral norms of the country you’re visiting so, for example, you know whether or not to offer your hand when meeting someone or to remove your shoes when entering a room.


Understanding culture also means that you don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t make eye contact or it they want to skip the pleasantries and just focus on the business discussion.  People show respect in the way they know how and in the manner to which they are accustomed.


As you seek to understand the culture, avoid stereotypes and overgeneralizations and instead look for patterns in behavior.  Ask for guidance from your hosts or other people who are familiar with the customs of the country you’re visiting. 

Making the attempt to understand your host country’s culture will go a long way towards helping you connect with people around the world.

And when in doubt, follow the old adage, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Of course, that assumes that you first understand what the Romans do!

And a word of caution to those of you conducting training program or managing teams in other countries:

If you expect people to act in a way that is counter-cultural (counter to their cultural norms), then explain why it is important, give them time to adapt to the new behavior and be willing to make modifications. 


For example, when I was conducting programs for a U.S.-based Fortune 200 company with global operations, senior company leaders often visited the program and conducted an informal question-and-answer session.

However, when I was working in Shanghai with participants from China, Korea, Japan and Thailand, asking questions publicly to a senior leader could be seen as challenging and even disrespectful.

So we had to change the plan.  The day before the leader (who happened to be American) visited, we explained to the participants that he would expect questions and view them as a way for him to become a better leader.  We asked them to work in groups to list questions on flipcharts, with no names attached.  Then we consolidated all the questions and came up with a short list to ask.  When he visited the next day, a pre-appointed spokesperson from each group asked the question.

This technique worked well, achieving the desired result for the leader and moving the participants slightly out of their comfort zone, without completely violating their cultural norms.

For another example from my experience conducting programs in Asia, see my blog post: Feedback is a Gift



Gilda Bonanno is a speaker, trainer and coach who helps people from all walks of life improve their communication and presentation skills.

Copyright (c) 2015

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