Many meetings these days are full of ELFS, before you think I’ve gone mad I mean English as Lingua Franca Speakers. These are people who are not speaking their first language. Business is global and English is very widely spoken, which may seem to help communication. But we can only communicate effectively if we understand the culture of the person we are dealing with.
Language as a barrier
Even if people are native English speakers there can be cultural and linguistic differences. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw described the English and the Americans as ‘Two great peoples separated by a common language’. Even within England there can be some confusion. For instance people from Yorkshire in the North of England take a pride in being ‘plain speaking’, which may just sound rude to someone from the south.
And when people start using the sporting references so many business people love, it can get very confusing, phrases like a sticky wicket, running interference or dropping the gloves mean very little if you don’t know about cricket, American football or ice hockey.
And this applies even in countries that share a common language. I am Austrian and I took my Austrian customer to meet a colleague in Northern Germany. We had a meeting and we all spoke German but after a while my customer started chatting about his holiday. My German colleague looked increasingly uncomfortable and asked me later if the customer was serious about doing business. If so why was he talking about his holidays?
I had to explain that he was chatty and willing to talk about personal things because he was relaxed and had come to trust us. My German colleague was still perplexed. This brings us to the key point – you have to be aware of cultural differences even when you are talking the same language and the objective is to build trust that ultimately overcomes all barriers.
If you study negotiation techniques you will find people talk about the three key elements of a negotiation:
Most people tend to concentrate too much on the Content and the Process and not enough on the Relationship. Because of the risk of misunderstanding in cross-cultural selling, it is even more important to make the relationship work and build trust.
There are so many ways people can misunderstand one another. It is useful to know that there are high context and low context cultures. English culture tends to be high context and that means many things are left unsaid and you have to work out the real meaning. American and German cultures are low context and we tend to be more explicit and make everything very clear. This leads to the saying ‘The English are too polite to be direct and Germans are too direct to be polite. Other examples are Japanese people who will say ‘That’s difficult’ when they actually mean ‘no’ but don’t want to be confrontational. And Brazilians might say ‘No, yes, but’ when they mean yes.
It’s not just language, behaviours vary too. Most people know that the Japanese are very formal about the way they present and receive business cards, passing it over with two hands, bowing and reading the other persons card. And the English are quite happy to continue a business meeting in the pub while Germans say ‘Work is work and schnapps is schnapps’.
How do you overcome language and cultural problems?
These issues of communication and understanding across cultural barriers are only going to become greater as business becomes more global. You cannot hope to fully understand every version of English and every cultural difference so here are a few guidelines to help you get past the barriers and begin to build the trust that is essential in closing a sale.
Culture vs. the individual
Don’t stereotype – not all Chinese, Serbians and Russians are the same. You are dealing with individuals first and foremost. You can read and research about business etiquette in various countries before you deal with people from these countries but don’t pretend you are an expert. There are web sites and even apps you can download to your phone that are designed to help you understand cultural differences.
By acknowledging likely cultural differences, checking with the people you are dealing with if you have understood things properly and asking about their way of doing things you can begin to build that trust.
Inexperienced negotiators tend to belittle unfamiliar cultural practices. It is far better to seek to understand the value system at work and to construct a problem-solving conversation about any difficulties that unfamiliar customs pose.
If the other side starts making relationship signals, they are interested in seeing whether or not they can trust you. Relationship signals may include talking about non-business subjects such as recreation, sports, food, or music. They are trying to get to know you as a person.
I have observed too many people pay lip service to this. They ask a couple of questions without listening to the answer, and quickly move on to the business. But others can sense when you are not really interested in them.
Trust is part of every culture
You don’t have to be a part of the same culture as someone else to trust them, or even speak the same language. If Margret Thatcher, the right wing British prime minister in the 1980’s could say of the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev ‘I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together’, then vendors and customers from any cultures can build trust.
Seek common ground
Cultural differences may create a divide between you and your customer. Constantly search for ways to bridge that gap. A first step in bridge building requires you and your customer to find something in common, such as a shared experience, interest, or goal.
Questions to ask yourself
Do you find yourself in situations where cultural differences are causing problems with a sale?
Do you plan how to bridge those differences?
Are you confident your customers from different cultures trust you?
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