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Bridge the Cultural Divide

Less face-to-face time can mean messages get lost in translation, says international business guru Erin Meyer. Has technology improved cross-cultural communication? “Not necessarily,” says Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. “Fifteen years ago, people traveled to do business internationally. Now, we work all over the world without ever looking people in the eye. Our communication style may offend, but if we lose business, we just think, ‘Our price was too high.’ In fact, we may not be recognizing our cultural blunders.”

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What kinds of “cultural blunders” do you see most often? “Americans speak more in meetings than any other culture. It’s partly due to the participation grade we have in our schooling system. We need to recognize that silence, in many cultures, isn’t negative.” What do cultural blunders look like via email? “How much social content we put in emails differs. In a more task-oriented place like the U.S., it’s common to jump right to business, but in, say, Latin America, that comes off as being disrespectful or aggressive.”

What about differences in providing feedback? “In the Netherlands, it's common to give blunt feedback. In Mexico, it’s done in a more diplomatic way. In the U.S., we give three positives for every negative, so people in other countries may think their performance is acceptable, when we were really saying the opposite.”

How can we better understand our differing communication styles? “We’re often uncomfortable talking about cultural differences because we think the other person will feel judged or stereotyped, but every person likes to talk about their culture in positive ways. The most effective international businesspeople laugh at their own culture and ask a lot of genuinely curious questions.”

ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGE

1/5/17 5:13 PM

February 2017  

An unrivaled food scene, acclaimed architecture, hidden beaches, and the fabled history of mezcal—the things that make Mexico a singular des...

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