As companies continue to do more and more business in other countries, there's a good chance you will work with someone from another country or cultural background at some point in your career. Working with foreign employees can be tricky, because even simple communication differences can cause major miscommunication issues. In addition, women are treated very differently in certain cultures, making it even more complicated to navigate the international business world.
Imagine your surprise if your British co-worker told you that he would "knock you up" in the morning. Although in the U.K. this phrase is harmless, meaning to "knock at someone's door," Americans would be confused or offended by this. While this type of miscommunication can be funny at times, it can also lead to some pretty awkward conversations. Knowing which American English words have other meanings elsewhere can save you from potentially embarrassing situations.
In the U.S., making eye contact with someone shows interest and engagement in the conversation, but when speaking to someone from Latin American, Middle Eastern or Asian countries, looking someone in the eyes might be considered rude. If you make too much eye contact with a male business associate from one of these countries, you may be inadvertently hitting on him, as eye contact is used there to show romantic interest in others. Crossing your legs may seem innocent enough, but showing the soles of your shoes can be very insulting to a Middle Easterner. Simple body language is enough to offend other cultures, so being aware of some of the things other cultures find offensive can help to create good working relationships with foreign employees.
Before using the "OK" hand sign, peace sign, thumbs up or pointing at anything, be aware that these all can be disrespectful to a foreign employee. Depending on the country, these gestures can be equivalent to "giving someone the bird" or treating them like an animal. Foreign women often do not shake hands with men, so men from these countries may not be accustomed to shaking hands with women in general. A handshake may also be seen as aggressive in other countries, so following the lead of the other person seems to be the best approach.
Other Communication Issues
At some point in your life, you'll likely have an experience with a "close talker." The amount of personal space required varies by culture, and differences can create an uncomfortable interaction for both parties. Americans tend to require more personal space than others, so you may see a lack of personal space as pushy or aggressive, while foreign employees may think you are being standoffish. Timeliness is another issue that may arise in the business world. Americans value timeliness for meetings and appointments, while in Latin American countries, for example, appointment times are often not as strict. You may think it's rude if they arrive late, but it could be business as usual for them.
Based in Los Angeles, Amber Collins has been working in private-sector Human Resources for 10 years. Collins has been certified as a Professional in human resources by the Human Resources Certification Institute since 2007. She holds a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in human resources management from California State University, Dominguez Hills.