Influence is Cultural
A technical proposal that succeeds in an engineering firm in Germany may not be as successful with a clothing retailer in Indonesia. Likewise, a successful plea for donations to a floral fair in Hawaii may not succeed in a mining town in Wales. Cultural differences can have a profound effect on the success or failure of influential attempts, and culture nuances can include differences in country, region, company, profession, religion, lifestyle, and so on. If you influence cross-culturally you need to be adept at understanding and adapting to all kinds of cultural differences.
An old joke about cultural differences goes like this: Business meetings are like hamburgers. The bun is the socializing that may take place during a meeting, and the meat is the substance of the discussion. In America, meetings are like hamburgers: bun on the top, meat in the middle, and bun on the bottom. Americans like to socialize at the beginning of the meeting, then discuss the substance, and end with some socializing. In German business meetings, the joke goes, there are no buns. In Japanese business meetings, there is no meat.
Like all such jokes, this one over-generalizes and stereotypes cultures in simplistic ways. Yet it still contains a few grains of truth. Americans do tend to open meetings by socializing (“I’ve never been to Seattle. How do you like it?” “How was your weekend?”) and close by socializing (“It was nice to meet you. I hope your son’s concert goes well.”) But in some cultures, it is more customary to minimize the opening socializing and get right down to business (“Thank you for meeting with us. Our agenda today is. . . .”) or to make any socializing perfunctory—an exchange of business cards, a comment about the weather. In other cultures, the socializing is an important part of the meeting ritual (“My name is . . . I am from this region of the country and graduated from these schools. I am part of this clan, and my family is related to these other clans.”) In these cultures, the social rituals are often as or more important than the meeting’s substance. In fact, the primary purpose of an initial meeting may be to establish trusting connections among the meeting participants so the more substantive conversations can occur later during dinners, site visits, presentations, technology demonstrations, or golf.
In this article, I’m not going to offer concrete suggestions for influencing in each of the numerous cultures around the world. Instead, I want to note that influencing effectively cross-culturally depends on three factors: (1) your awareness and acceptance of key cultural differences, (2) your skill at adapting your influence style and approach to people in the other culture, and (3) your skill at navigating cultural nuances in the moment.
There are numerous resources for gaining awareness of cultural differences. Author and speaker Roger E. Axtell has written a dozen popular books on the theme of Do’s and Taboos Around the World. Author Terri Morrison’s theme is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. She and contributor Wayne A. Conaway have written books on doing cross-cultural business in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world. They and Joseph J. Douress wrote Dun & Bradstreet’s Guide to Doing Business Around the World. There is no dearth of information on cultural differences around the world, and being aware that a hand gesture that means “okay” in your culture may mean “up yours” in another is obviously an important piece of cross-cultural awareness. Equally important is accepting that cultural differences matter, that your way is no more the “correct” way than anyone else’s way is “correct.”
Cultural differences matter, and acceding to those differences shows that you recognize and respect other people’s customs. So, if you’re in Japan and your Japanese counterpart bows upon meeting you, bow in return. If you’re in Thailand, and your counterpart gives you the namaste gesture (both hands together in the prayer position), then return it. How will this help you be more influential? Respecting someone else’s cultural customs shows that you respect them, and that creates commonality. People are more likely to be influenced by others with whom they feel some commonality, even if they don’t know those people well, and they are more likely to be influenced when they feel respected and even honored. Failing to recognize or respect cultural customs can create the opposite effect—it can create annoyance, distance, and distrust.
Recognizing and Accepting Cultural Differences
To be effective cross-culturally, you must first recognize and accept that people from cultures other than yours have different customs, norms, expectations, meanings, and rituals. Recognizing difference is sometimes difficult because their customs may resemble yours but differ subtly. A firm handshake in one culture may be a sign of resolve and self-confidence but that same firm handshake in another culture could be perceived as aggression.
Accepting cultural differences is challenging for some people. Their attitude is that those differences shouldn’t matter or, yes, there are differences but why shouldn’t the foreigners conform to my culture? If your intent is to influence people from other cultures, then the burden is on you to adapt. You want to show that you respect their customs and honor them by adapting to them, rather than expecting them to adapt to you. If they are trying to influence you, you can expect them to be doing the opposite and adapting to your cultural customs. Finding a happy medium is generally the best approach for both parties. It creates a greater degree of congeniality, respect, and cooperation, which are conducive to positive influence.
Skillfully Adapting your Influence Style
You can accept cultural differences and try to adapt but be clumsy about it. If you are from a culture that does not easily or skillfully socialize, then trying to socialize in a culture that values it may be challenging simply because you lack the skill or don’t often have a chance to practice it. There is no remedy for lack of skill except to be aware, follow others’ lead, and hone your skills through exposure and practice.
You can read some of the books I cited earlier. Or you can watch films or television produced in those other cultures. Even if you don’t understand the language, you can observe how people interact with one another, how women and older persons are treated, how formal or informal their interactions are, how people dress, how children are being raised, how people greet each other, and so on. Ultimately, the best teacher is experience, and the more you are exposed to people from different cultures, the more skillful you will become at adapting your influence style.
Navigating Cultural Nuances in the Moment
Perhaps the greatest skill you can have as an influencer is reading people in the moment and knowing how to interpret the interpersonal and cultural signals you’re seeing as you interact with them; how to respond to their words, gestures, and actions; and how to adapt your influence strategy to what is happening moment-by-moment during the interaction. This is a key skill whether or not you are working cross-culturally, but when you are influencing someone from another culture, you must also be aware of their culturally based responses.
Notice where their eyes are focused. Notice their facial expressions, particularly as reactions to what you’re saying. Notice their body posture and how they interact with colleagues or others from their culture, especially the silent communication that passes between them. Notice when they are paying attention and when their attention wanders. Notice how closely they are following detail—or whether they are more interested in the big picture. Notice when they are becoming impatient as well as what most energizes them.
Adapting to cultural nuances in the moment is a key social and interpersonal skill. People who master it are acute observers of others, are extraordinarily aware of cultural differences, and are adept at making subtle shifts in their own behavior as they interact with people. They can sense the flow of the conversation. They know when others are being persuaded and when they are not. They know when to push and when not to, when to take a different approach and when to stay the course, and when to bring an agreement to closure before overselling the point.
Don’t despair if you don’t feel you have this skill. Mastery of it can take years and lots of patient practice.
Regional and Organizational Cultures
Finally, when we speak of cultural differences, we must take into account differences beyond national cultures. There are also differences in regional cultures within a country, and differences in ethnic and religious cultures, and differences in organizational cultures from one company to the next. Whenever groups of human beings interact in a collective over a long enough period, they will develop a culture that derives from the culture they originated in but also reflects customs, traditions, and practices that have developed within that group. If you want to be an effective influencer, you must take into account the differences between your culture and their culture and adapt accordingly.
Photo credits: business people shaking hands: Photo 89058546 © Fabio Formaggio | Dreamstime.com; firm handshake: Photo 103006573 © Wanida Prapan | Dreamstime.com; young woman: Photo 27149367 © Agencyby | Dreamstime.com; business team: File ID 46521710 | © Rmarmion | Dreamstime.com