By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine
Networking is about meeting someone, establishing a connection or shared interest, and channeling that connection in order to develop a mutually beneficial business opportunity. Especially in Houston, you can be faced with meeting people from any culture at any time so the challenge and opportunity in networking with international prospects is remarkable for the culturally savvy.
While most cultures adopt the American way of dealing with other people when doing business in the United States, each person still carries his or her own cultural habits and behaviors. Nevertheless, spoken communication is only one part of human interaction. While the number of non-verbal cues may be limited, their cultural meanings vary from people to people and can have serious personal and professional implications when they are misconstrued. Smiling is probably the most prominent non-verbal cue and usually every American takes its meaning for granted. Nevertheless, something as seemingly straightforward as a smile can have various cultural meanings and interpretations. In American culture, a smile is used as an acknowledgement of presence and an expression of friendliness. For example, strangers who pass on the street will smile at each other as a polite greeting. To a French person this would be taboo. The French only smile at people that they know otherwise it would seem strange. In fact, most cultures believe that Americans smile too much. A Russian businessman, for example, most likely will sit through an entire meeting completely straight-faced. His American counterparts may take this as hostility but in fact he is merely demonstrating that he is serious about his work. Conversely, in many Asian cultures a smile is used in unpleasant or awkward situations to smooth over a conflict or misunderstanding.
Eye contact is another ambiguous non-verbal cue. In American culture, it is important to make eye contact upon meeting someone; however it is rude to stare. In the Indian and Arab cultures staring at someone is quite common behavior and absolutely neutral in meaning. On the other hand, in the Chinese tradition looking someone in the eye is considered disrespectful. Americans view a lack of eye-contact as being dismissive or dishonest, something that can have negative ramifications on personal interaction and business dealings.
The concept of personal space elicits many non-verbal cues as well. Personal space is important in all cultures, however the amount and the meaning of it can be very different. Typically, Americans will stand at least an arm’s length away from their interlocutor. If a person tries to stand closer, the American will perceive this as an act of aggression or intimidation. It is important to note that in most European cultures, such as the French, people will talk to each other with just inches of space between them. The closeness is important for them because it makes both people feel more engaged in the conversation. Conversely, too much space is viewed as cold and impersonal and can have negative implications on the social dynamic.
In a networking situation, even if you are unfamiliar with a particular culture, observe the individual and mirror their actions. For example, when meeting a Japanese businessperson, the presentation of a business card is a very ceremonial exchange. He most likely will present it while holding both corners and possibly even bowing to offer it to you as a sign of respect. When receiving the card, it is appropriate to accept it with both hands, take your time to read the information, and hold it for the duration of your exchange. In Japanese culture a business card is considered an extension of the individual so that is why you must treat it with care. Additionally, it would be considered fitting to bow as a response to accepting the card. It is actually not considered culturally correct to put the business card in your wallet or in your back pocket. It is preferable to carry a special case in which you may carefully place the card. This action will demonstrate that you are offering proper respect to the businessman.
Obviously, it is not possible to learn every specific non-verbal cue in every culture, nor is it expected, however the most important skill to cultivate in cross-cultural communication is open-mindedness. The realization and acceptance that different cultures express themselves physically in different ways will allow you to become more attuned to and tolerant of such differences. The best advice is to enter every encounter with a person of another culture with a clean slate and with as few presuppositions as possible. This will allow for a much more fluid and natural interaction.
Finally, thanks to globalization there is a plethora of knowledge in published works and online about social interaction between cultures. If you know you are going to have personal or business dealings with someone from a particular culture, it makes good sense to utilize such tools and prepare for your cultural interchange. Therefore, the most important takeaway is that in a networking opportunity, you want to make the other person feel as comfortable as he or she can by mirroring their actions and behaviors. This kind of mutual respect will allow you to go far in multicultural business dealings and create long-lasting relationships.
Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine is the Founder, CEO and President, MasterWord Services, Inc. Contact her at [email protected] or 281-589-0810