Lessons from Living Abroad – Overcoming Cultural Differences in the Workplace

In the months leading up to a move to Spain, I thought the cultural immersion would be seamless, a walk in “el parque.”

Boy, was I wrong.

No matter how seasoned of a traveler you may be, the realities of living abroad can be jarring. In the United States, life is driven by business. Conversely, in Spain, leisurely living is a higher priority. The city essentially shuts down between the hours of 2:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. for “siesta,” or a daily period of rest. Planning on scheduling a client meeting over a meal? You may want to think twice about that. In Spain, mealtimes are usually a time for spending time with friends and family, while business is typically conducted in an office setting.

In the workplace, it is imperative to be conscious of cultural differences, such as those I learned about while living in Spain. Here at Bliss, many teams work with international clients and contacts on a daily basis. While interacting with foreign clients, it is important to keep cultural considerations top-of-mind:

  1. Timing is everything when it comes to understanding different approaches to work.   Not all countries abide by the 24/7 business culture that characterizes the corporate culture of myriad U.S. firms. In some countries, such as France, national law dictates a 35-hour work week. In certain industries, including high-tech and consulting, union agreements require an obligation to disconnect communications tools after a certain hour. Understanding the cultural attitude toward daily work hours in a country before engaging with a client may prevent misunderstandings in future engagements.
  2. Learn the linguistics. Language, both verbal and nonverbal, is crucial to the success of business ventures. In the U.S., conversation tends to be highly verbal and assertive, while other countries value a more reserved approach. Understand cultural conflicts on your team.  If it is impossible identify the foreign business partner’s style of communication beforehand, be an active listener in your initial client meeting. Pay close attention to context clues avoid casual language until you form a better understanding of how to most effectively communicate with your target audience.
  3. Cater to client culture, both literally and figuratively. Take the case of McDonald’s. In 2013, the fast food giant’s presence in India was lacking. Dominant religious beliefs in the country prohibit the consumption of beef (Hinduism) and pork (Islam), and McDonald’s menu simply didn’t cater to the market. To address this disconnect, McDonald’s opened two restaurants with exclusively vegetarian menus and sales soared. Looking at this through the lens of marketing and PR, not only being aware of your clients’ dietary restrictions—which can help mitigate a potentially awkward lunch meeting—but, more broadly, keeping up to speed on international clients’ cultural etiquette will show that your organization has respect for those who come from other backgrounds.

What other best practices or examples do you have when it comes to working with international clients? Share with us below.

Photo by Alexis Ganz.

Connect with Alexis:

Phone: 212.840.1661
Twitter: @AlexisGanzPR