With more and more Americans doing business with other countries and employing foreign workers, it is important to understand and anticipate cultural differences between American workplaces and those in, say, Japan or Germany. Familiarizing yourself with the work cultures of your international colleagues, and understanding how they might view you as "different," can help prevent embarrassing moments or lost deals.
Tact and Direct Speech
Americans usually appreciate plain speaking in which your desires or concerns are communicated directly and literally. Although certain niceties are expected, such as using "please" and "thank you," generally Americans can be counted on to say exactly what they mean. In many other cultures, such directness is considered rude. When doing business in countries such as Korea or Japan, the literal truth is less important than avoiding embarrassment. Cushioning your words is not seen as evasive, but rather as diplomatic.
Role of Managers
Americans value consensus. A popular boss is someone who meets with underlings, finds out how they would like things to work and attempts to make decisions in ways that make everyone feel acknowledged. In many other countries, however, a boss is expected to be the bold leader of a hierarchy, to make decisions and instruct everyone else about what they should do. In those cultures, making everyone feel comfortable is often not as important as making fast decisions.
Written and Spoken Communication
Some cultures, like the American one, value written agreements. Business deals are not settled until all parties have signed written contracts. Sending emails and faxes to confirm decisions makes people feel more secure. But in some other cultures, an impersonal contract or fax is not as meaningful as the spoken word of a colleague who is known and trusted. Spoken agreements are considered as contracts, and a request for a written one might come off as distrusting.
Formality and Work-Life Balance
Some cultures expect professionals to be calm at all times and to speak in measured tones, while others value expressions of emotion and loud speech they see as friendly. Similarly, in some countries co-workers call each other by their last names and avoid asking personal questions, while in others it is expected to ask colleagues about their children and hobbies. When you travel abroad for business, find out ahead of time whether you might be expected to discuss work issues while out for a drink at 9 p.m., or whether your partners might consider it natural to call you at your hotel at 10 p.m.
Dress and Punctuality
Companies in some cultures can be counted on to start meetings on time, and being late is a faux pas. In other areas, the stated start time might be viewed as a rough guideline, either because the culture does not value punctuality in general, or because traffic is known to be so bad that no one expects smooth traveling to the office. Additionally, while some cultures expect formal office attire, including ties and often suits for male employees, others accept daily "business casual" even in corporate environments.
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