published by Jinu Jayapalan

Intercultural skills are important as they help build trust as well as maintain a successful business relationships in a modern business environment. Even people who live in countries that share borders closely show different mannerisms and display stark difference in their business protocols. Failure to understand such a difference will lead to costly mistakes.

The ‘WFH’ (Work from Home) model has created added complexity when teams from different cultures meet virtually for important meetings and decision making. The chances of misunderstanding are higher since it is difficult to read the body language and non-verbal cues from a virtual meeting.

Here are four tips for doing virtual meetings with your foreign team members

1.      Communication patterns:

It is always good to set an agenda and send it to both parties before the meeting. It will help participants to see which points they need to focus on and also to make sure that all the major items are included. For some cultures like that in Germany, an agenda is like a road map for the discussions.

As previously stated, it is difficult to read the body language and non-verbal cues in a virtual meeting. But you can always seek confirmation by asking the right questions. The American anthropologist Edward T Hall in his book ‘The Silent Language’ defines Low context and High context cultures. Low-context cultures communicate information in a direct, explicit, and precise way: there is no beating around the bush. However, those in High-context cultures communicate in a very implicit way and rely heavily on nonverbal languages like avoiding eye contact and the shrug of a shoulder etc.

Low context cultures like those in Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland etc. expect communications to be direct and to the point so that there is no risk of confusion. Alternatively, High context cultures like in Spain, China, Japan, India etc. tend to use communication that focuses rather on the underlying context, meaning and tone of the message. Understanding these communication patterns is one of the most important aspects of international business success.

2.      Be proactive:

Working with different nationalities in teams is a wonderful opportunity to learn different perspectives. Cross-cultural collaboration will lead to innovative ideas, designs and knowledge. By understanding your international teams’ cultural behaviours, it is possible that better productivity, quality and results can be achieved. The key points that help to bring success are; being open-minded, have a willingness to share perspectives and being proactive.

Be proactive and approach your foreign client in order to clarify the key points of the virtual meeting. There is nothing wrong in asking questions again in order to clarify important points to ensure that both parties are on the same page. Don’t just say ‘yes’ in order to not offend the other person.

3.      How do you start a meeting?

Do you spend a few minutes in small talk before a meeting? Or do you just dive into the discussion right away? This mostly depends upon the situation. Some cultures give importance to small talk before the meetings. It helps them to set the climate and to build relationships in order to gain trust. Countries in the Middle East, Asia and European countries such as the UK, Spain are some examples where this practice takes place. On the other hand, countries like Germany, Finland, Denmark etc. spend only a few minutes introduction at the beginning and then go directly to the topic of discussion. For them ‘small talk’ is just a time killer and there is no reason why they should spend time on relationship building. Understanding such subtle differences can help you to create a good rapport with your clients. If you are not sure about the scenario, just follow the structure of the moderator. If you are the moderator, be proactive and learn the best strategy that works within a particular culture. If it is a mix of cultures, set an agenda in advance that is neutral and send to all the participants.

4.      Watch out for humour:

It is also advisable to be careful while using humour in virtual meetings. The jokes that work well in some cultures won’t necessarily go down well in others. Furthermore, one should also keep in mind about the taboo topics in the other culture. For example, Germans are serious when it comes to business and they do not appreciate jokes, while Americans use humour more often. The British and Danes sometimes use satirical humour which may not always be clear to other nationalities. Any humour relating to politics, religion and negative events are best avoided. If you are not sure of the situation refrain from making jokes during a virtual meeting.

The next time you have a virtual meeting with your international teams keep these small tips in mind. The intercultural challenges we mentioned here are with regard to meetings and they are just the tip of the iceberg. It is highly advisable to take intercultural training or coaching in order to learn more about how to successfully deal with intercultural misunderstandings and how to bring out the best of your global teams.