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EP Advisory

Perceptions of time, attitudes towards requests, different values. Effective tips for those working in an international team

Job abroad
10.02.2023

We are well aware of the communication techniques of our native country and language, and continue to use them on autopilot when dealing with a French boss, colleagues from America or the owner of the Spanish restaurant around the corner.

It's like learning to drive a car but not knowing the rules of the road. Lack of cross-cultural skills leads to misunderstanding, increased mental stress and difficulties in adapting. The experts at EP Advisory offer some useful tips.


Example:
An employee from Spain approaches an American manager: "Our department is falling behind on monthly performance. What should we do?" The boss replied, "Email me the details." The Spaniard left in the belief that the boss didn't care about him, while the American still didn't understand why the email describing the problem never arrived.

What happened? According to the Spanish development, the manager should have listened carefully, empathised and offered a solution verbally - it was important for the employee to communicate with the manager and work together. The manager, on the other hand, thought that email would be much more effective - he did not want to hurt the employee's feelings, he was only trying to solve the problem. The misunderstanding stemmed from a misinterpretation coming from a native culture of communication. Sound familiar?


Eureka! Five elements of communication that everyone has

All this diversity of backgrounds, languages and social classes do have one thing in common. According to Sherwood Fleming's theory, at any given moment of communication you do something from this list:

  •     Request - ask;
  •     Offer - offer;
  •     Promise - promise to do what your interlocutor is asking you to do;
  •     Declaration - announce possible outcomes (for you or others);
  •     Opinion - expressing an opinion, backed up by facts or not.

It is these five elements that allow us to achieve our goals when interacting with others.

Analyse the situation: What can and cannot be changed

Let's say you live in England (or Germany) and work for an international company. There are times when you feel misunderstood or let someone else's expectations down (like that Spaniard employee or his American boss). Naturally, you'd like to change that. But how do you approach it?

No matter how hard you try, you're unlikely to change the following:

  • Other people. It sounds trite, but almost all of us have a strong "they just don't know how to communicate / give feedback / set goals" and so on sitting in our heads.
  • Personality or character traits. Not other people's, nor (most likely) our own. There's a "but" here: we often confuse personality traits with a lack of any of the five communication skills.

Example:

A department manager had no way of establishing a relationship with an international team. All the tasks were not performed as efficiently as she would have liked them to be. She put it down to a "personality flaw"; for years she had been trying to change herself and "stop being a perfectionist". What was the problem really? She did not know how to formulate requests in detail, and employees simply could not guess what their boss expected of them.


  • Notions of time. Different notions of what "urgent", "as soon as possible" and "at a quiet pace" mean are firmly embedded in every culture. Even if there is a conventional deadline, people from different cultures can turn in work 24 hours in advance, minute by minute or 'only' a week late - and in their culture this can be considered perfectly normal!

Don't assume that the other person has the exact same idea of time, or that they will adjust to yours - it's much easier to be clear about your own deadlines.

What can you really change?

  • Your own communication skills - the way you formulate requests, promises, proposals, opinions.
  • The way you listen to others - how dispassionately you respond to their cultural sensitivities and whether you can hear the informational essence of their request.
  • Values - e.g. corporate values. The Hispanic employee in our first example could explain to the manager and team why he values face-to-face communication so much and how it helps the job (and the American boss could share his idea of efficiency!). Values are most often negotiable if you pay attention to them and recognise them.
How can you improve your communication skills?

Rule 1: Focus on the content.

Our first unconscious reaction to a phrase or email is usually always emotional. However, a facial expression that you judge to be friendly could be mistaken by someone else as negative or hostile.

The solution: learn to ignore intonation and body language and focus on the information. Try to understand what others are saying, not how they are saying it.

Monitor your expectations just before you start reading another letter from a colleague. For example, if you have been in British culture for a long time, you probably assume there will be a greeting and a chit-chat (a softened response to your previous letter and a wish back) in the letter. Not only assume, but interpret them beforehand!

Try to completely ignore anything that could be "misinterpreted" in your culture and remove any emotion. Your only goal at this point is to understand what your colleague's wish or suggestion and how you can approach the task together.

Of course, there are many theories on how to interpret body language. But is it necessary to know all its characteristics? And what is the chance to really get a feel for each one, to become completely at home in a new culture? (Recall that within your own culture, you've been learning to interpret it since childhood, every hour, in every dialogue).

In addition, you may have 20-30 nationalities and classes in your company. It will take you several lifetimes to learn the rules of communication with each of them, while a practiced "pure perception" will immediately improve the lives of you and your colleagues.

Exception: basic rules of etiquette do exist, and it's best to read up on them beforehand. For example, bow when you meet when you are in Japan.

Rule 2: Practice expressing your requests and suggestions

What is a request?

  • We make a request when we need something.
  • We ask for someone who we think is able to fulfill our need.
  • The 'duties' of the requester include a clear description of who has to fulfil the request, where, how, when, and to what standards.
  • The "duty" of the one who receives the request is to evaluate (whether he or she is capable of fulfilling the request) and decide. The result is an offer or promise.

Example:

A meeting facilitator needs an assistant to write notes during the meeting. He chooses a colleague with an excellent level of English and the ability to type quickly. He also specifies that any quotation should be followed by the name of the speaker and as much detail as possible. Finally, he asks that the notes be saved in Microsoft Word and sent to him by 4pm on the same day.

The staff member who receives the request replies: "Of course, I will certainly record everything in this exact format, but I can only send it the next morning - before 9 o'clock". The manager agrees - and a binding promise is made.

With such a clear exchange of requests and wishes, there is little chance of misunderstanding.

Now remember, how do such requests most often occur in your job? The most popular: "Can you take notes as the meeting progresses and send me ASAP?" - "Yeah, I will." Sound familiar?


Depending on their nationality, people are either ask-oriented or offer-oriented.

Americans, for example, often have a request-oriented dialogue, and they are more persistent by nature. They even have a saying: "Never take no for an answer". Representatives of many European countries, on the other hand, first observe what the interlocutor needs and only then offer.

Irrespective of your native culture, if you want to improve your communication skills you must learn to formulate your requests and offers correctly.

Let's go back to the first example. If the interlocutors focused on a key thought and exchanged clear requests and offers, the following would happen.

The Spaniard asks: "Talk to me, we have a problem in the department". The Manager's responds: "Email me. I'm busy at the moment, so I'll answer your request later". In this case, the Spaniard should have either agreed to send an email or made a counter-offer of "I understand that you are busy, but the matter is very urgent. It is really important for me to talk to you in person. Can we talk now or arrange a time later?"

Rule 3. Learn to hear the person you are talking to, understand their request and the context

We are used to thinking only about our request, about what we want to say ourselves. However, few people ask themselves: "What of what I say will have points of contact with the interlocutor?".

Your opinion becomes relevant to your interlocutor the moment you understand what he wants, needs or fears - and build your request accordingly.


Example:

A British man walks into a crowded restaurant in France and asks the waiter, "Hello, do you have a table for two?" The answer is no, he goes outside and grimacingly explains to his French wife that there are no tables. "How is there no!" the wife is surprised and heads confidently to the waiter. After a couple of minutes she returns to her husband saying, "There's a table over there in the corner, let's go."

The British man formulated a direct request for his own benefit when he approached the waiter (albeit politely). In France, it is customary to be interested in the person you are talking to first and to phrase the request as if it were practically an "offer". The French wife turned to the waiter with understanding and said something like: "There are so many people today, you must be very busy! I wanted to ask for a table, but should I come back later when you're free? It's just the two of us, we already know what we want to order and we won't take up too much of your time."


Rule 4. Brevity is the businessman's sister

Can you say less with more? Ironically, it is easier to be verbose than succinct in our communications. But long sentences with complex grammatical structures only make it harder to understand. Structure your speech as simply as possible.

Rule 5. Emphasis? Don't panic on the Titanic

Many job applicants worry about having an accent. However, if the pronunciation doesn't interfere with comprehension when speaking, then there is no need to worry. Your accent is just as correct and unique as that of your American or British colleague.

Foreign employees do everything they can to get rid of their accent in the hope that it will improve communication. In reality, when you work for an international company, it doesn't matter.

And of course, there are also good habits which do not depend on the language of communication.

For example, an opinion backed up by facts will always be perceived more neutrally than a personal one. And broken promises will undermine your reputation in any culture, unless you are honest about your inability to deliver and make a counter-proposal.

Source: EP Advisory

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