With the business world becoming ever more global, multicultural meetings are increasingly the norm.
Cultural diversity is just one important aspect that needs to be taken into account alongside other considerations such as gender, seniority and functional diversity.
One of the most common areas where business meetings can go wrong is how different cultures react to debate and discussion.
In many APAC countries, telling someone bluntly that you strongly disagree with them is not accepted practice and is likely to have a detrimental impact on any relationship.
Another faux pas in Asia is pointing with the index finger – this is generally considered rude. Far better to use an open hand with fingers together when trying to get a point across in a discussion.
Language can also present challenges. For example, to Indians, English is second nature whereas for the Chinese, they will often be translating from English to Mandarin and back again before they can reply. Often, in the case of the Japanese, a translator may be required to enable a meeting to run smoothly.
You also need to be aware that something in one language/culture may mean something else in another making it important to be very clear and concise and then, if necessary, asking people to repeat back so you can acknowledge their understanding.
Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and the author of The Culture Maps, says: “If you don’t prepare for cultural differences and anticipate them at the front end, they are a lot harder to deal with after the fact.”
Andy Molinsky, a professor in organisational behaviour at Brandeis University in the United States, comments: “You’ve probably run meetings where there is quite a lot of diversity – culture is just one more element.”
Molinsky adds: “Sometimes culture matters, sometimes it doesn’t, and you can’t always anticipate.”
I have found one of the best way to learn about cultural differences is often through observation and by being inquisitive. Try and understand the social nuances between different countries and share these within your team so that others in your organisation can benefit from this learning.
A little preparation that can help to ensure meetings run smoothly:
- Do your homework to understand some of the cultural protocols;
- Establish some ground rules so colleagues understand how meetings will run;
- Don’t be afraid to break up more formal meetings into sub-groups if they are likely to run better/achieve better results;
- Don’t over worry – different cultures are capable of adjusting their cultural default when it merits it;
- Encourage collaboration between cultures outside of meetings and socially to further improve overall understanding.
Armstrong Craven is a global talent mapping and pipelining specialist with offices in the UK and Singapore.