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How to avoid cross-cultural gaffes in business meetings

How to avoid cross-cultural gaffes in business meetings

Cross-cultural gaffes happen all the time, even in big business. When Kentucky Fried Chicken introduced its business in China, for example, something got lost in the translation.

In Chinese, the company slogan “finger-lickin’ good” apparently translated to “eat your fingers off.”

Here’s a tip for your next international business meeting: do your homework on cross-cultural business communication skills before leaving home. If you’re not prepared, the joke could be on you.

Know your audience

“When in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s an adage as old as, well, the Romans. It applies to all types of business interactions too, except for the gladiator stuff. Nowadays, the weapons won’t get through security.

But seriously, you have to adapt to local norms if you want to survive a business meeting in another culture. It takes more than a good translator or a common language. Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, says it’s important to know your audience before you get there. She suggests the following tips:

  • Make one-on-one phone calls leading up to the meeting;
  • Get cultural input ahead of time; and
  • Communicate with diplomacy.

Americans often jump into meetings with strong presentations that may be off-putting in other cultures. Many Asian countries, for example, place a great value on listening. This is also a good foundation for any meeting and for international business communication skills in general. Meyer says that good business meetings give everyone a chance to speak. “Sometimes knowing when to be quiet can make all the difference,” according to Meyer.

One tip that Meyer provides is to “go around and ask each person for a last reflection” at the end of the meeting. “You might find at that point that those who were silent throughout the meeting still have something important to say.”

Leave your jokes at home

Sue Bryant, writing for the Country Navigator, says humor can be effective — as long as your audience thinks you’re funny. But it’s risky when speaking to a foreign audience at a business meeting. They’re not there for a standup routine. “When making a presentation to a cross-cultural audience, leave the jokes in your briefcase,” Bryant says.

Too often, writes David Livermore, PhD, cross-cultural gaffes are perceived as rude. If you’re on the receiving end, he suggests several ways to rebound from those awkward moments.

  • Start with assuming a positive intent
  • Try to understand by asking for information
  • Have some flexibility to adapt to the cultural context

Of course, it’s on you if you start a business meeting with a joke that bombs. The good news is that in some cultures, they won’t heckle you.

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