9th Mar. '11

It’s a Wonderful (international) Life

A post by Mark Mueller-Eberstein

I was 25 years old when I visited the US the first time.  Invited by a company on the east-coast on recommendation of a head-hunter, I was discussing to lead their German subsidiary. The first meeting after my arrival in Hartford, Connecticut, was a dinner appointment with the Senior Vice President of sales.

Having been brought up (thanks mom & dad) in a modern, educated home with a focus on culture and social interaction, I was well aware of the basic rules of etiquette in my home country Germany as well as the European countries we had visited over the years. That “education” included how the silverware at a formal dinner is handled.   For the “Non Germans”: You hold your fork in the left and your knife in the right hand; cut a piece with the knife, eat it, and cut the next piece. All the while both hands stay on the table, supported by the wrist.

As soon as the steak arrived on the table, my dinner host took his knife and fork; cut the meat into little parts; then put his knife away, switched his fork into his right hand and rested his left hand in his lap.

I was stunned. I had never experienced an educated person in a leadership position being so “lax” in their table manners. At least that was my impression. Of course by now I have learned what most of you already know, that such behavior are the expected table manners in the United States and are taught even at the best charm schools here. But for me, this first “deviation” from my norm truly distracted my ability to focus on the conversation.

Most young people are far more familiar with cultural differences than we were only 20 years ago. The media has done its part, but also international mobility and flexibility are having a much bigger impact on the average middle class child in a way that a few decades ago only the “jet-set” had.

Most of us are working internationally these days. Either we are physically travelling; have colleagues and employees from other parts of the world or partners and clients we might only meet virtually, but still engage in “their” cultural sphere.

And then there are some underlying challenges in communication style where you least expect them. I vividly remember the discussion I had several years ago on a flight to Singapore with a Lady who was focusing on cross cultural training. She explained that in general,  Americans and Australian men have challenges working together. Even as both speak English as their first language and are closer to the British culture; the countries’ history had prioritized “consensus & politeness” (e.g. by avoiding critical topics like religion or politics) versus “reliability & trustworthiness” (e.g. by taking the opposite viewpoint just to test your “new friends” conviction in a discussion).

Coaching people that are engaging internationally, we are often asked “How do you avoid the key challenges and most common pitfalls?”

One book I am recommending to my mentees over the years consistently is “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway (Adams Media) .

http://www.amazon.com/Shake-Hands-Bestselling-Business-Countries/dp/1593373686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1299108494&sr=8-1

Another resource I just found (partly because it had an article on understanding Finnish culture better) is:

http://www.circlesofexcellence.com/blog/

And of course… “learning by doing”. Engage with people of different background. Talk with them about their impressions, experiences and expectations. Be open to different cultures, and forgive others their “mistakes”; as they are likely doing the same for you. ;)

What are the resources you find most helpful? What were your “aha moments” when engaging with people from a different cultural background? We would like to hear your stories!

By the way, despite the “formal dinner” experience; the company decided to work with me in the Germany; an offer I had to decline as I was drawn into the IT industry and joined Hewlett-Packard instead and eventually migrating to the US a few years later, still learning to appreciate the differences and similarities.

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