You’re holding an important meeting in the boardroom. And right in the middle of your presentation, you notice – among the many people sat round the large, oval table – one of your Japanese colleagues staring at you straight in the eye. “What must he want?” you think. His gaze is persistent. At that moment, an American co-worker suddenly sticks up his hand and asks a question, while your Japanese colleague slumps into their seat, impatient.
Strange? No – not if you truly understand the rules of non-verbal communication in different countries around the world.
In actual fact, both colleagues wanted the same thing: to ask for clarification. The only difference is in the way they went about it. European and Western people do this by using their limbs – putting a hand up, for example – while Asian people simply make eye contact with whoever is speaking. Indeed, in Japan it is considered impolite to gesticulate noticeably, and eye contact is only made where necessary. During meetings, Asian people tend to sit with their eyes closed, to show they are concentrating and listening.
This example is a simple, effective illustration of how, in our contemporary, cosmopolitan and joined-up world, it is increasingly important to have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural differences between people.
We should not view these as barriers, and we certainly should never revert back to the old clichés, but we should instead strive to understand that each and every one of us is influenced not only by our character and our DNA, but also by where we come from. And of course, that goes for our behaviour in both our private and professional lives.
Another good example lies in the way we set out presentations or telephone calls. While American workers tend to get straight to the point, without too much preamble, in Germany a good manager will back up their opinions with a healthy dose of theory. Moreover, when it comes to requesting somebody’s presence at a meeting, while in America a simple email is considered a polite invitation, a Chinese colleague translating quickly from English to Mandarin might see this as an obligation and take offence. That same Chinese colleague might spend a lively meeting in silence, but don’t make the error of thinking they’re uninterested in what’s being said or simply too shy to contribute. Scratch below the surface and you realise that your colleague is politely waiting for their turn to air their point of view. In China, it is customary to wait for everyone to finish speaking before making your own contribution.
You see, diversity is not a problem, but an opportunity: what’s important is that the person in charge is sufficiently intuitive to understand the meaning of the behaviour of their colleagues. It’s a skill that you learn on the ground over the course of your professional development, as you get used to working with international teams – something that is especially true of an international Master’s programme.
Working and studying alongside colleagues from all over the world is undoubtedly the best way to become an effective leader in the new millennium. And understanding the way your team behaves is the key to ensuring fluid communication and successful collaboration.