different cultures

Cross-cultural communication full of traps for the unwary

By Anna Campbell

According to Tony Smale, of Forte Management, national culture is the single biggest influence in how people think, behave and make decisions - greater than gender, social status and age. Last year, on a business trip to the United States my colleague and I found ourselves eating lunch alone after a business meeting. We had intended to lunch with our business colleagues and when they had asked what we wanted for lunch, we were very polite and vague in our answer, ''We don't mind, we understand you are busy ...''

This was interpreted as ''We're not really that interested in lunching with you'', so we were cut loose and left to dine alone. Realising our mistake, we rang back and arranged a firm dinner meeting, chopping indecisive language from our conversation.

Handling Kiwi vagueness is a workplace nightmare for immigrants to our country, and I wondered where the vagueness originated. I suspect it has English origins after a conversation I had with my brother, who works in England.

He told me, when he first started working in English hospitals, he was pulled aside by his boss as patients had complained he was too blunt. He told me, when New Zealanders face bad news, they want to hear it how it is, so he had developed a straight-to-the-point way of speaking. This was too much for his English patients, who wanted to hear such news more gently, the words death or dying being offensive. So there is a definite scale for vagueness versus bluntness and where you land on that scale, depends on what culture you are working with.

Advice from cross-cultural consultants when working internationally is to learn and read about cultures you are interacting with as much as possible before undertaking business with them.

This is sound advice, but in my experience, nothing beats getting it wrong - which I have many times - to force you to learn.

In China, I had been told and read many times about hierarchy and saving face - Mian zi. Hierarchy is important in Chinese culture and according to Hofstede Insights, Chinese have a high ''power-distance index,'' of 80, compared with our 22.

I know this and I understand theoretically how this works. In more formal situations, such as dinners and presentations, it is quite easy to adapt and behave accordingly. It is in business conversations and negotiations that I have become unstuck, speaking too frankly and therefore insultingly and being too immediate and straight-forward in my answers. Reflecting in car trips afterwards, I have been able to pinpoint the exact time when a negotiation went bad, when I was too frank, or worse, interrupted my Chinese counterpart and was gently shut down - I had unwittingly questioned face. No amount of reading really prepares you for the adaptation required to alter your communication style. There is an element of learning on the job.

Directness versus indirectness, short-termed business negotiations versus long-term business relationships, individualism versus collectivism, so many directions on the cultural compass, no wonder we find navigation difficult. What I have learned is that I will get it wrong, sometimes badly, I have walked out of cross-cultural meetings and had the full gamut of emotions, from elation, to despair, to laughter at how crazy communication can be. Failure comes from walking away and not learning from your mistakes. Pushing restart and trying again is appreciated by most people and whatever someone's culture, people will sense when you are being sincere and respectful and this goes a long way towards getting it right.

Anjum Rahman, the first Muslim woman to run for Parliament (she ran for Labour in 2014) said, ''I think that in recognising and valuing diversity we're saying that, actually, we do have a lot of common values as human beings and we're just respecting that people do things differently. There is space for shared common values among people of different cultures - the work we have is in getting to that space.''

I take from that, that it is not so much about your culture or mine and changing who we are, it is about recognising that our culture alters the way we communicate and do business. We need to ask ourselves, why or how a conversation ended the way it did, what part did we play and how do we fix things and make them better?