Isabel Amaral
Communication in a global market 
By Isabel Amaral, President and founder of the Portuguese Association of Protocol Studies (APorEP)
Isabel Amaral will talk about cross-cultural communication at the UIA Round Table Europe, 15 and 16 November 2018 in Lyon, France.
Our world has been transformed into a global village and international associations must often work with a multicultural team. Thanks to the new technologies available it is easier to organize meetings all over the world, but we still need to be aware of cultural differences in order to avoid faux pas.
Globalization does not mean that there is a homogenization of cultures. Culture is a complex system of values, beliefs, attitudes and customs shared by a society. It affects our behaviour and the way we communicate. Until we all speak the same language, share the same history, the same heroes, the same symbols and the same religion, each culture will continue to be unique.
Communication styles vary. Sometimes we do not understand why our Asian partner agrees with us in a meeting but then does exactly the contrary of what was agreed. If a Chinese says yes, he means maybe, if he says maybe, he means no and if he says no, he is not a true Chinese. The same happens with other Asian cultures where the word 'no' is considered discourteous or even aggressive. Once in Beijing I asked the hotel receptionist if to go to certain restaurant I should leave the hotel and turn right and then turn right again but the answer was “you better take a taxi”. I insisted because I had been in the restaurant previously and remembered that it was within walking distance, but the answer was always “you better take a taxi”. After leaving the hotel I understood that what I had to do was turn left, not right, and then left again. The receptionist was too polite to tell me I was wrong.
Although culture may be based on nationality, national culture is just one of the many cultures within the same country. And in several huge countries there are different languages, different religions and different ethnicities.
Faced with another culture we tend to impose our own values, believing them to be the best. But what may be acceptable in Lyon may be unacceptable in Delhi. When organizing an international meeting it is advisable to adopt a common code in order to overcome three main barriers in cross-cultural communication: prejudice, language and religion.
To avoid prejudice you should observe and spot the differences without judgement, trying to see the world through the other person's eyes. Intercultural competence is the ability to create a comfortable third place between one’s first culture and another culture.
Language is an easy barrier to overcome. English is usually the preferred language in most places but if there is an issue with the language, it is advisable to ensure that interpreting facilities are available at all meetings.
Remember, too, that there is no such thing as a universal non-verbal language. The meaning of a simple gesture can vary widely: thumbs up means approval in the United States or Russia, but this gesture is considered highly offensive in some parts of the Arab world, being equivalent to the middle-finger in the West.
The biggest barrier to consider in intercultural communication is religion. If you are planning a meeting in an Arab country, you should be aware of all the limitations imposed by the Sharia law that regulates public and private behaviour, influencing the food, the beverages and the dress code. A friend of mine went on a survey visit to an Arab country with her team and when she entered the office building of her partner group she was astonished to find that she had to take the cargo lift because only the male members of the team were allowed to use the main lift.
Cross-cultural competence is knowing how to bridge the gap in behaviour to operate effectively, adapting your approach just enough to relate effectively, but not so much that it feels inauthentic. We need to accept that it is a continuous learning process and that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we apologize when they occur, creating a comfortable atmosphere so people feel they can easily speak up and check with each other when in doubt.
Isabel Amaral is a Protocol Cross Cultural and Corporate Image Expert, coach and speaker, and author of two books on these subjects.