While living and working in China for more than four years, I had my fair share of cultural disconnects. Like when a man invited me out for dinner with all his friends a number times and I learned—weeks and one very awkward situation later—that we were, in fact, dating. Or when my host family invited me over for dinners and I brought them gifts, they got very close to offended because they felt that true friends and family wouldn’t be so formal as to bring gifts.
Navigating the waters of cross-cultural communication are choppy, confusing and either really funny or really offensive. But when you’re doing so in the context of a business, you really want to avoid being the unknowing offender.
So if you have any clients, contacts or contractors outside of your home market, how do you maintain a positive relationship with them? It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, but here are some considerations to get you started.
The most important thing to note is that cross-cultural communication is far more than knowing what the local holidays are and adjusting your spelling for location (though those things are important). What it really comes down to is being willing to listen and learn. People are generally forgiving and tolerant, but if they think you’re not even trying to learn about them and their context, they’ll be understandably less so.
So approach all international communications from a place of understanding and respect. Diplomacy is an art, and you have to be willing to put yourself out there and learn from your mistakes.
Speak to people differently
Even if your customers speak English natively, you’re going to have to speak (or write) to them differently if you want to really connect with them. This may involve adding or deleting letters (like “colour” instead of “color”) but more importantly, you’ll need to watch your slang and colloquialisms.
In your email, phone and in-person conversations, you’ll want to cut out idiomatic expressions, because their meaning could be totally lost on your counterpart, or you could be inadvertently using a word that actually means something else (or worse, something offensive) in their country.
Talk to people differently
You’ll need to moderate not just your words, but also your tone of voice. Especially if you’re naturally more boisterous or very reserved, you’ll need to find a happy medium, since many people may perceive overt emotion as intimidating or gauche, or extreme reserve as cold and removed.
Find a tone that’s in your natural range and ever so slightly cheerful and stay within that range for the entirety of your conversation.
Understand their time
Time zones: Live them, love them, post them on your wall, set different clocks on your phone, and then make sure that any applicable webinars, support or communication channels are available to overseas clients during their daytime hours.
As someone who routinely dealt with 15-hour time differences, I understand the frustrations of trying to call U.S.-based customer service from China at midnight or later. Your customers or clients will not appreciate having to do the same thing, so while it might not be easy for your small business, you have to give your international clients some way to have a conversation with you during your customers’ normal waking hours.
You’ll also want to be well versed on local holidays, but not so you can send out holiday messages and offers. In fact, you should be very, very careful in regard to holidays; our international team recommends that you avoid them altogether if you don’t understand all the nuances that come with the holiday (and its resulting message) or if you don’t practice it yourself. Not understanding nuances or context around certain holidays can lead to huge gaffes which are hard to recover from.
You do want to know about local holidays so you can know if you’ll be facing delays. For example, take Chinese New Year. If you have any clients or contractors in China, you’ll probably know that the whole country has essentially shut down for the next five or six days, so the chances that you’ll be able to reach anyone there for any reason are all but nonexistent.
Understand their seasons
Consider this your friendly reminder that Christmas does not fall during the winter for many people—the whole Southern hemisphere, to be exact. Infusionsoft by Keap learned this lesson the hard way.
We once held a promotion called Own Your Summer, which fell during summer in North America, but we promoted it to all our customers—which included our substantial base in Australia. The promotion didn’t resonate for them, and for good reason: It showed them that we overlooked basic science and forgot that it wasn’t summer for them. And makes it seem like we hadn’t considered them as we should have, which, to be fair, we didn’t. You can bet we won’t be making that mistake again.
Tailor their emails
If you use Infusionsoft by Keap, you can schedule emails for each contact's time zone instead of sending everyone the same email when it's 8 a.m. for you, but not necessarily for them.
That way, you don’t have to worry about creating multiple international versions of your communications or about sending the wrong communications to the wrong people.
Give gifts they can use
If you’re promoting a giveaway or prizes or meeting them in person and exchanging gifts, you need to consider what they can use. Let’s say you’re based in the U.S. and giving away a TV and a person in the U.K. wins it. Well, plugs look different on either side of the pond, and voltages vary, so if you send over an American TV, all it will be for them is a large flat dust collector.
Food is a popular gift, but you’ll also want to be super cognizant of customs and border control. Bottles of alcohol are often subject to limits and taxes, and most fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, cheese and more are often banned completely, whether you’re sending the food via postal service or taking it on a plane with you.
Tailor what they see
If you have products for sale online but certain products that aren’t available globally, make sure that people entering your site no matter where they are only see the products they can actually buy and receive. There’s nothing more frustrating than finding what you want or need and seeing that it’s not available in your country, and you don’t want that frustration associated with your brand.
It’s also a good idea to test any images you want to you use on your site with a small group of your target audience. Because images can have such varying connotations in difficult cultures, you want to know how they’ll resonate with your target audience before you put them out there.
Don’t pretend you know everything to save face—do what you can to learn everything you can and then test it with your target. And again, the most important part of successfully navigating international relationships is to always come from a place of respect and acceptance. The rest will follow as you learn.