You’ve been working hard–initiating new projects, staying late, and really winning over your boss. One afternoon the owner buzzes your phone, “Get in here!” Armed with a notepad and pen, you nervously check your lipstick and teeth for leftover spinach and dash into his office.
“Hey there. Would you want to go to Thailand next week?”
“The Thai Department of Export Promotions invited someone from our company to attend a trade show. I can’t go, would you be able to go?”
Stunned, you hear an explosive burst rip out of your chest “Yes! As long as I can use my vacation time on the end of the trip.”
As you prepare for the trip of a lifetime, one that will finally boost your career on an international scale, you rest on the most important question of all… “What cultural rules and norms should I be prepared for, and how on earth will I recognize them when you see them?”
This questions pertains to any kind of international travel (not just tips where you’re meeting the government of Thailand). So, how can you prepare for cultural differences when working in an international environment?
1. Respect Everyone
In many industries, you may find yourself working with family-run businesses. However you may not even be aware that people are related. The lesson here is to respect everyone and their position. Despite the fact that they may not be good at their job, they were designated to be your point person. So while you’re building a relationship, be mindful of how you communicate. You never know who’s related to whom, the back stories of how they arrived in their position, and often times you’re not made aware of who’s the most senior person until it’s too late.
Hannah Danto Dorafsha, blogger and former Peace Corps worker in a tiny Pacific Island country offers some sage advice.
- Observe. There’s much to learn when we keep our mouths shut and our minds open.
- Find an ally or friend who speaks your language, so you can ask them about the things you don’t understand.
- Approach the work from the perspective of each side having value rather than one being better than the other. or one being right and the other being wrong. When we polarize, that’s when we offend people.
2. The Magic Words
Learning to say a few key words in their language can melt the hardest of souls. Even if you mispronounce the heck out of “Spasibo,” they will honor and respect your interest in learning something about their culture.
For best results learn, memorize, write on your hand the following words:
Hello. Good day. Thank You. Please. Yes and No.
3. The Numbers.
If you’re going to spend more than a few days in a country, learn their numbers. This will help you immensely. Even when ordering a coffee, if there’s a long queue behind you, knowing they asked for 500 yen will make you feel like a local and avoid any eye rolls.
4. Kiss and Don’t Ask
In many Latin language countries, a kiss means something very different than what it does in other parts of the world. In France, for example, you will see men and women greet each other with an air kiss on either side of the check, left to right. A kiss on the hand from an older gentleman is rare, but also still acceptable.
These cultural nuances happen all over, so if you see it happening around you, then it’s probably acceptable. For example:
Stacey Mehalik, who works as an event specialist in Los Angeles, CA recently attended an industry summit in Moscow, Russia. She quickly became aware of cultural differences attempting to socialize.
Looking for culture and unique dining venues, Stacey wandered to a few off-the-beaten-path locales, but struggled to communicate. When the women she tried to engage with walked away to whisper to their friends she felt insulted and defeated. After two days of this, she asked her English-speaking driver what was happening. He explained that most likely, the women were embarrassed that they couldn’t speak English fluently with her and walked away to avoid the situation. It had nothing to do with her, but with their feelings. Once she was aware of this, she mastered a few brief greetings and this made all the difference in her trip.
“It completely turned things around for me and from then on, I was greeted with happier faces and longer conversations,” Stacey said.
So when your first reaction is to be offended, step back, ask a local, and always lead with respect and compassion. And if you’re wondering how the buying trip to Thailand went? Well I can tell you, it was amazing.