Stories of failed translations are plentiful, with colorful anecdotes like “The Jolly Green Giant” that was at one time translated as “The Intimidating Green Monster.” However, what we don’t always hear is that there are plenty of nonverbal communication blunders between cultures. As the world shrinks and we work internationally, across cultures, nonverbal communication is a subject we all need to be very aware of, as it can often make or break a deal or potential partnership. Read on for some concepts to keep in mind so that you don’t offend anyone at your next meeting.
Here in the United States, a western culture, we see time as very cut and dry. For example, if you have a meeting scheduled at 11:00 AM, you are expected to arrive at that exact time. For that same meeting, you could even be expected 15 minutes early, but never a minute late. Conversely, in an eastern culture like Japan, if a meeting is scheduled for 11:00 AM, it is not uncommon for it to start as late as 11:30. Additionally, there aren’t always hard end times in eastern cultures like there are here. For example, if you are scheduled to be somewhere for an hour in a western culture you can expect to leave in an hour. However, that is not true everywhere and the meeting may take an organic spin and not end until all parties find it appropriate, but rarely according to the clock. Therefore, if you keep this in mind when conducting business internationally, you will save yourself some frustration if you tend to overschedule or try to pack too much in.
The topic of body language could be a separate conversation in itself. However, there are some key things to zero in on. First, when traveling internationally, especially for professional reasons, it is important to remember gestures in your home country may not resonate in your destination. In other words, a seemingly harmless gesture in the United States can be seen as extremely offensive aboard. For example, American gestures like the “peace sign,” a palm facing forward (meaning stop), or the ”okay” sign can be viewed as offensive while aboard.
Additionally, your body language and eye contact is something to constantly be aware of while communicating with someone not native to the country you are traveling from. While in the United States and much of Europe, eye contact shows that you are being attentive or concentrating on important parts of a presentation or conversation. However, in regions like Asia, Latin America, and Africa prolonged eye contact can be viewed as disrespectful or as a challenging behavior. Therefore, if you do some simple research before traveling abroad, you can save yourself from some unnecessary nonverbal communication inaccuracies.
In western cultures, there isn’t much thought given to who goes through a door first. However, in other cultures the order in which people pass through thresholds has great significance. The person in power always goes through the door last. It is to represent that they are the host and guiding their guests through. It is also important to keep this similar concept in mind when thinking about meetings. For example you need to know whose “job” it is to start the meeting, make any transitions, and end the meeting. Even before the meeting starts, it is important to do some research in proper seating etiquette. For example, in China the proper etiquette for the power person is to sit at the center of the table and the guest to their right. Again, a little research into your destination could help make long lasting partnerships instead of unintentional offensive behaviors.
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