Erin Meyer told attendees that people from cultures who communicate in “high-context” ways tend to have the most trouble understanding each other when working in a business relationship.
You’re used to working with American home buyers and sellers who, for the most part, expect straightforward answers and quick, hassle-free customer service. But when you’re working with foreign clients from Asia or the Middle East, you’ll need to build a more personal relationship and learn how to “read the air” when they speak rather than rely on the literal meaning of their words.
There’s a wide difference in the expectations of a business relationship across cultures, Erin Meyer, global business communications expert and author of The Culture Map, told attendees at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Chicago on Friday. During her session, “How Cultural Differences Affect Your Business,” Meyer presented her research on the distinguishing characteristics of customers across the world.
“Low-context” societies—of which the U.S. is the most extreme example—focus on clarity, simplicity, and explicitness in communication. That may make it difficult for you to interact with clients from “high-context” societies—of which Japan is a prime example—which rely more on implicit and nuanced communication. People who communicate in high-context ways likely don’t want you to concentrate on the particular words they use; instead it’s best to try and understand the meaning behind their words, according to Meyer.
Because the verbal word is more open to interpretation in high-context societies such as Asian cultures, you may have a tendency to consider clients from those regions as uncooperative or less forthcoming with their true opinions, Meyer warned. On the other hand, they may perceive your straightforwardness as condescending or arrogant. “Think carefully about your intuition and how to use cultural bridges to communicate more effectively,” Meyer said. “Ask clarifying questions and consider whether you really need to repeat yourself. … Most times, silence is better than filling the space with repetitive communication.”
It’s also important to understand how people from different cultures process negative feedback. In the United States, we tend to use “downgraders,” or terms that soften negative feedback, such as “kind of” or “a little bit.” That may clash with the habits of clients from Russia, for example, who tend to punctuate direct negative feedback with “upgraders” such as “absolutely” or “definitely.”
“We’re taught in the U.S. to give three positives for every negative,” Meyer said. “But with downgraders, by the time you get to the real message you want to send, the customer won’t hear it.” Take a look at where certain countries fall on the scale of direct to indirect negative feedback.
There are also different methods for building trust across cultures. In the U.S., we tend to favor a task-oriented approach. “When you show up on time and do what you say you will, then you’re considered trustworthy,” Meyer said. But people from Brazil, for example, favor “cognitive trust” based on building a genuine relationship and revealing your true self. In such a case, a two-hour lunch to talk family and personal background may be more important than punctuality and follow-through.
“How friendly you are with clients is not the same as being relationship-oriented,” Meyer said. “You have to get personal to show your respect to them.” See where different cultures fall on the spectrum of trust-building.
Take Meyer’s Culture Map quiz to find out how your communication preferences match up with other cultures.