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How To Display Cultural Sensitivity in Multinational Gigs

  • November 25, 2020

Folks who freelance have a rare opportunity to not only choose where and when they work but also with whom. That last point just might be one of the more attractive aspects of this career path, given that the people we’re surrounded by (even virtually!) and the organizations we align ourselves with can have a huge impact on our quality of life.
Finding that personal and professional synergy can happen with a firm down the street, a company across the country, or a startup in Jakarta.
But if you approach each engagement in the same manner—without regard for local cultural norms—you can come across in a way you’re not intending. What, where, when and how you express yourself as a freelancer can appear rude or insensitive.
How can you exhibit a more worldly perspective when working with globally-distributed professionals or companies even if you haven’t left your home state? If you’re keen on working well with folks from hither and yon, read on.

Do not reveal your geographic or demographic ignorance—or better yet, educate yourself.

Going to pick on my fellow Americans in particular here, as I’ve been ‘facepalm’ embarrassed by some comments I’ve heard them say to their (likely very well-traveled) counterparts. For example: Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish; Australia and Austria are on different continents, and . When you start working with people from all over the world, you need to broaden your horizons. So if you’re unable to travel, surf the web to discover where they’re situated, the general climate, the economic state of their country, etc. Note: you don’t necessarily need to reveal this information. It will simply help you to contextualize and further hone your communications style—and make you significantly less likely to look like an idiot.

Tone down the slang by a few magnitudes.

I’m not even talking about the obvious stuff only a local or a native speaker would know, or the things you might hear in Hollywood films. Clearly, you wouldn’t tell a business contact from Uzbekistan that a new product design was ‘off the chain.’ But even a seemingly benign, common phrase like ‘how’s it going?’ can be misheard or misunderstood. Remember: text-based communication is often easier for non-native speakers of any language, and when it comes to conversations, comprehension while listening is a whole heck of a lot easier than attempting to express oneself with the spoken word. (I know this from experience.) So gauge your clients’ communication preferences and adapt to them.

Learn to say a few key phrases in their language correctly–and greet them first.

This gesture is almost always met with immediate warmth and appreciation, even if you’re not a linguist. That said, it really shouldn’t be done in a half-assed way. First, seek out online references with native speakers offering tutorials on some basic greetings and exchanges. If you have a fluent friend who can help, even better! Then, try as best as you can to replicate a native accent rather than converting the sounds to yours; remember to put the emphasis on the right syllable. Note: in some cultures, you’ll want to get right down to business, while in others, building rapport through small talk is key. (Check out this post by Inc on international small talk with some solid pointers.) Take this into account, and you’ll be on to making a great first impression.

Don’t judge someone’s role based on job title alone.

Keep in mind that organizational hierarchies and decision-making processes vary widely across cultures, and are influenced by institutional traditions, market type, legal systems and demographics. In some countries, for instance, a ‘specialist’ would be equivalent to what might be called a manager in other places. In other, more egalitarian companies, titles may take on little meaning at all. Be attuned to the layout of any teams you’re working with, along with the nature and tone of their interactions (as much as you’re exposed to them). Some may surprise you by coming to a decision by consensus, while others may emphasize structure, procedure and punctuality over flexibility and adaptability.

Respectfully acknowledge others’ national and religious holidays.

There’s a reason you don’t wish someone a ‘happy’ Yom Kippur, ANZAC Day or Bastille Day. (If you don’t know it, you should look those up.) So if your colleagues or clients are vocal about observing certain holidays, find out what some appropriate greetings might be. Adding a well-timed ‘Eid Mubarak!’ or ‘Frohe Weihnachten!’ to a one-on-one chat or an email thread will help them to feel both appreciated and more comfortable around you in general. This isn’t about scoring bonus points or looking like a know-it-all; it’s about creating an atmosphere of mutual respect.

…but avoid discussing and/or debating about religion or politics.

Like the old advice that goes for any and all family gatherings, these two hot-button topics also have no place in business interactions. Not a big fan of Vladimir Putin? Keep it to yourself when meeting with that St. Petersburg-based crew. Curious about daily routines in Mormon-majority Utah? Save your questions for Quora. Unless a rare opportunity reveals itself (e.g., you’ve built up a certain rapport and openness with a client), you shouldn’t tread down this path uninvited. Note: even if you ARE invited to share your opinion on a potentially divisive topic, carefully consider how doing so could impact your relationship.
Have tips of your own to share? We’d love to hear ‘em! Feel free to add them below.

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