3 things to know about doing business in a multicultural context

Doing business in a multicultural context: Dubai streets

‘We are moving toward a global economy. One way of approaching that is to pull the covers over your head. Another is to say: It may be more complicated – but that’s the world I am going to live in, I might as well be good at it.’

– Phil Condit, Former Chairman and CEO of Boeing

More and more interactions, transactions and negotiations are taking place across cultural and linguistic borders. Engaging with firms in foreign regions will become part of ‘business as usual’, and knowing how to communicate will become critical for success.

Why? The global economy is expanding. In the Middle East and North Africa alone, the World Bank projects growth to reach 3.6 percent by 2018 – eight points above the global average. Neighbouring regions, such as Turkey and South-East Asia, face similarly high projections.

Organisations will find doing business in these markets an unavoidable part of the future, because growing markets means new opportunities and new customers. And if you’re doing business in a multicultural context you need to communicate effectively in a new way to get your message across.

Niall Hall, a Templar consultant based in Dubai, looks at some of the key cultural variations in communication style that you need to understand in order to successfully do business in a multicultural context.

3 things to understand about multicultural communication

1.    Time is relative

Language, spirituality, cuisine, music – all of these things vary wildly among different cultures. We know this, we embrace this and we respect this.

But what many of us don’t realise is that people view time through a cultural lens too. In some cultures, time is cyclical or event-based, meaning rigid linear timekeeping has no place in business. In India, for example, deadlines are more like ‘guides’ or targets than fixed dates. And in the Middle East, ‘time is event- or personality-related, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, moulded, stretched, or dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says.’

This is why it’s important to keep an open mind about schedules, dates and timelines when doing business in a multicultural context. In particular, remember:

  • Punctuality is subjective. The Germans, Flemish and Swiss like punctuality. The Chinese, on the other hand, are famous for arriving early to meetings while the French and Spanish are often more relaxed about exact times. The rules and conventions around meeting times can differ. Be aware of this and show up at the appropriate time.
  • Timeslots are open for interpretation. You may think an hour is sixty minutes, no less and no more. But a colleague from Saudi Arabia would be offended if you were to simply leave when the hour was up. In some cultures, time is irrelevant if there is business yet to conclude.
  • Signs and rituals matter. Some cultures mark the beginning and end of time with ritual practices, such as the exchanging of business cards or thanks. Do your homework and know what to do.

2.    Fluency isn’t everything

If you’re doing business in a multicultural context, being fluent in several languages is certainly an advantage. But understanding other things – like cultural attitudes towards meeting etiquette and business processes – is just as important as language competency.

There are more than 200 nationalities represented in the UAE, each with a different approach to life and doing business. That’s why, if you’re building relationships or pitching for new business, you need to know your audience and tailor your approach (and your expectations) accordingly.

Consider Nigel’s recent experience with a prospective client. Nigel manages his company’s operation in MENA, and the Head of HR at a potential client reached out to discuss a potential partnership. They organised a meeting and, by the end, Nigel was convinced that the client was ready to sign:

‘I walked out of there thinking it went really well, and then I got a polite note saying that they’d come back to me with a decision in their own time. I’d completely misread the situation. I soon realised that you actually never have a bad meeting in the Middle East, even if the other party has no intention of ever working with you.’

3.    Body language is not universal

Human beings communicate heavily through non-verbal cues, or what we commonly refer to as ‘body language.’

Body language is by no means universal. Different cultures may interpret common signs – like a smile or a handshake – in different ways. And some cultures place more significance on body language than others. Arab culture, for example, is a ‘high context’ culture; it places high significance on body language and considers it a distinct form of communication that you must carefully practise.

So if you’re doing business in a multicultural context, you need to learn the dos-and-don’ts of body language. Know that your client from Saudi Arabia will only shake with their right hand at the beginning and end of a meeting, and that your partner in Iran may not appreciate a smile.

The key lesson

Don’t take communication for granted. Your clients, partners and colleagues may not share your worldview or cultural understandings of things like time and body language. Know this and learn to adapt your message to your audience.

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