My sister has lived in Italy for more than half her life now. She’s married to a native Italian and has two kids who have grown up in Rome. Yet she still occasionally has what she calls “cultural moments,” which she describes on her Cross-Cultural Moments blog as “a twitch, a deep gut-wrenching punch, a squirmy, queasy, lightheaded feeling that comes on when people and institutions act in ways that put you outside your cultural comfort zone.”

Now that associations are increasingly taking their meetings outside the U.S., expect to have a few of these cultural moments of your own.

We’re not talking about the easy stuff—holidays and other dates important to the culture of the meeting’s host country, say, or customary greetings (kiss on one cheek or two? Shake or bow?). All that you can look up and, with relative ease, learn. It’s more those things that bring you up short because you really don’t understand where someone from a different culture is coming from. It could be as simple as being offended because a British person keeps calling your idea “brilliant,” sounding sarcastic to U.S. ears, when they actually do mean they think it’s good. Or, as my sister relates on her blog, the Italian who answered his cellphone in the middle of your discussion because, in that culture, it would have been rude to tell the person on the phone he couldn’t speak because he was in a meeting.

What’s unacceptable in one part of the world may be business as usual in another, and you can count on some cultural collisions any time you bring people of different backgrounds together.

It’s easy to just get huffy when someone doesn’t do things the way we do, but that’s something Americans are just going to have to get over. And soon. Over the next decade, the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China)—which couldn’t be more culturally diverse from each other as well as from U.S. norms—are expected to be major forces in reshaping the global economy. Of course, associations will be right there, too, building membership and holding meetings.

As we reach out, it’s more important than ever to examine the cultural forces that inform our actions—and understand the base from which our non-U.S. partners may be acting. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll become an expert on your host country’s culture. But remember when you hit that pocket of cultural discomfort that the signal you’re receiving may not be the one your international partners think they’re sending. And vice versa.

Sue Pelletier
(978) 448-0377