Be mindful of your assumptions
Those who know me know I have a lot of cousins. 30 first cousins and counting, 10 of them on my mother’s side. Add to this 10 all the second, third and fourth cousins on my mother's side, and you get the 69 members of one WhatsApp group I’m a member of. Some people post regularly, but I mainly skim the content and wait for something to catch my eye.
Recently something did. A cousin posted a (fictional) story about a group of doctors having lunch at a restaurant. One doctor noticed a man limping across the road towards them and pointed him out to the others. They all began to speculate on what could be wrong. Arthritis, one declared. Ankle sprain, proposed another. One by one they aired their views until they suddenly noticed the man was beside their table.
“Does anyone know a cobbler nearby?” the man asked. “I need to repair my shoe.”
Misunderstandings are rife in cross-cultural interactions. They can range from humorous to disastrous, and many times the trigger is an erroneous assumption. Assuming everyone’s level of understanding about a topic is the same, for instance, and thus not explaining the context and ‘why’ behind your suggestion. Or assuming that because someone doesn’t speak up during a meeting they have nothing to contribute.
My cross-cultural work experience has taught me to follow a powerful maxim: always expect differences. All of us are different: we favour different communication styles, are comfortable with organisational hierarchy to varying degrees, and pursue different interests inside and outside of work. Acknowledging these differences isn’t bad. Conversely, it reminds us that there’s no one size fits all way of engaging.
If you expect differences, you’re more likely to probe. To ask questions to find out how to best interpret what your business interest said or did. You’re less likely to make a wrong call.
So don’t forget to be mindful of your assumptions. And acknowledge differences – but do so without judgement. More on that point here...