Even something as simple as a grasshopper can mean different things in different cultures:
That example, taken from an HSBC global bank ad seen at Heathrow airport in London, was just one of many reasons cross-cultural communications can go awry, said Ulla Buchner-Howard, CMP, DFA, adjunct professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management, at the MeetingsNet Beyond Borders conference held in New York in July.
Here are five more things to watch for when working cross-culturally provided by Buchner-Howard, who also is a mediator at SafeHorizon Mediation Center, president of the German American Roundtable, and owner and president of ubh International Services.
1. Define Your Terms
Howard quoted George Bernard Shaw to highlight the first thing to watch out for: “The greatest problem with communication is the assumption it has happened.” Even something as simple as the cleanliness level you expect at your meeting hotel may need to be spelled out precisely. “I know my husband has a different meaning for clean than I do, and that’s in the same household,” she pointed out. Imagine how meeting industry terms you use every day may mean something very different in another country.
Helpful hint: When in doubt, paraphrase what you just heard, and have the person you’re speaking with explain what you just said to them back in their own worlds.
Buchner-Howard told a story from a trip to Bangkok back in her days as a flight attendant. She needed to get her laundry done by morning, and left it in a bundle outside her hotel room door. Where it sat, and sat, until finally after dinner she hunted down housekeeping and room service people to make sure they understood she needed it done by morning. Everyone she spoke with said, “Yes ma’am.” But still the pile sat. She finally went down to the front desk and found a person who spoke Western-style English to ask. He explained that “Yes ma’am,” just meant that the staff had heard that she said something, not that they understood what she said. “That’s why paraphrasing is important,” she said.