As Steve Anderson, manager of insourcing managed services, Global Trade Services, discovered early in his international career, little gestures can cause big headaches depending on the cultural context.
“In a meeting I had on my first trip to Thailand,” he recalled recently, “I crossed my legs, which pointed the sole of my shoe directly at the chief operating officer of the bank I was calling on.”
He discovered later that many Thais believe it’s rude to show the sole of your foot to another person and that his innocent faux pas had stopped the deal in its tracks.
“It hurt,” he admitted, but said the cultural lesson was invaluable.
In business interactions, assuming that we all share the same cultural point of view is sure to lead to awkward moments at critical times—sometimes with serious, if unintentional, consequences.
As Wells Fargo expands its operations in many corners of the globe, team members with international responsibilities have a special obligation to deepen their “cultural competence”—a mindfulness of the experience of others that enables effective cross-cultural communication—to foster business relationships that will be vital to our success overseas.
Exhibiting good international business etiquette can be as simple as attending to practical details, such as the logistics of setting up and leading conference calls.
Steve advised, “Understand where all your conference participants are located and the time zones they work in and then try to accommodate the most reasonable time for the most team members possible.”
Although it seems obvious, said Jay Boice, chief administrative officer, International Group, “You’d be shocked at how many people don’t know time zone differentials and send requests for 4 a.m. meetings.”
With conference participants scattered across the globe, the timing of a meeting is bound to inconvenience someone. If a meeting occurs regularly, rotate the time so that no one person always bears the burden of staying up late or getting up early to attend.
Supplying the international dial-in number will head off confusion before it starts, as will designing documents that can be printed on A4-sized paper and using international English spellings and date designations. Setting and distributing a detailed agenda in advance is critical, and recording the proceedings for those who can’t attend also earn high marks for business courtesy.
Sometimes a technical glitch, like a static-y phone connection, can happen without warning. If other participants on the phone call speak accented English as well, communication might suffer. To prevent disaster, “Project your voice, but make sure it doesn’t seem you’re using volume to make your point,” said Jay. “And slow down. Frequently pause and check to see if what you’ve said has been heard and understood.”
For face-to-face interactions, Steve advises, “Educate yourself in the basic business and social practices that are acceptable for the group you are meeting with, especially if you are meeting in a foreign location for the first time.”
With basic information on cultural norms, you won’t be surprised when the meeting you’ve scheduled for a certain hour begins much later. Or that the business you’ve come expressly to discuss isn’t addressed at all.
“It could be that you’ll have multiple meetings over a year before getting down to doing business. Some cultures want small talk and informal relationship-building up front—strange to American sensibility, but it aligns with Wells Fargo’s visions and values. We’re looking for customers with whom we’ll have long relationships,” said Jay.
When giving a presentation, said Steve, it will help to project openness. “Show that you are at ease. If you appear tense, chances are your audience will become tense, too.” If attendees don’t seem engaged in the discussion, try adjusting your delivery. “Most people understand English but their level of proficiency may vary,” as Ashish Sharma, Global Payment Systems management manager, pointed out. “Seek confirmation to know you’re speaking at the right speed.”
At some point, you may be tempted to tell a joke to lighten the mood. In a word, don’t.
“One of the biggest faux pas is humor. It usually doesn’t translate across cultures. Quips that are acceptable and understandable to Americans as icebreakers can put off others,” said Jay. Similarly, using informal hand gestures is discouraged as some can be unintentionally inflammatory.
Passing around an iPad to illustrate a point in your pitch, however, can introduce just the right dash of informality to a group dynamic. “You put something in their hands, you get their attention. They take it, they use it, they’re involved,” said Ashish.
The single greatest obstacle to creating rapport might be the less than flattering impression of Americans abroad.
Said Steve, “Many countries see Americans as arrogant, so when you are meeting someone for the first time, they may come with preconceived notions about you and our brand.”
Jay concurred. “You don’t hear the word “ugly” used to describe other nationalities. It’s a global perception.”
One way to counter this perception of Americans as aggressive communicators is to tone down your delivery.
“I’ve learned that people don’t respect when you talk at them just because you’re charged up about a topic. You want to be respectful,” Ashish said. “Assume that they know more than you to avoid sounding like another guy from the U.S. talking about how big they are.”
If all that makes you feel self-conscious, there are bright spots in the global view of Americans. Many people aspire to work in the U.S., and chances are the people you meet will actively seek the Wells Fargo perspective on banking and finance.
“Despite our perceived faults, we are looked up to. This doesn’t mean we need to be arrogant. You can be confident, but it never hurts to show a little humility,” Steve said. “I simply try to be myself. I interject things about my professional life that I think might be of interest and help in promoting our brand.”
Said Jay, “Be sincere — nothing is more simple than that. If you’re sincere and make naïve mistakes, it’s just human nature around the world to forgive that. But if you’ve been insincere, people are not going to be as forgiving.”