Stranger in a Strange Land

You've developed a strong set of people skills. But will they serve you equally well in another country?

The following article appears in the August 2013 issue of Canadian Insurance Top Broker. This online version features special web-exclusive content.

Why does an insurance broker need to be aware of local business etiquette and customs when travelling to culturally distant countries? Business is not just about facts and figures; it is mostly about people. A lack of cultural sensitivity can lead to faux pas that can completely break up a relationship, even after a deal has been signed. Being more culturally savvy enables you to quickly build trust and relationships with your foreign counterparts, which makes doing business more effective for the long term.

This article provides some general tips on how to build those soft skills, and then provides some country-specific business etiquette and protocol tips for Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Brazil.

Developing soft skills like communication and cultural sensitivity doesn’t happen overnight. However, putting the tips below into practice with everyone you meet will get you on the way to clearer and more effective communication with your counterparts in any country or culture.

Know yourself. Try to understand how and why you communicate the way you do. This will help you to appreciate others’ styles and how you may need to adapt to them. Pay attention to how people react and respond to you by looking for subtle changes in facial expressions and posture.

Be curious, with respect. If you are going to be doing business with people from a particular country, learn about the people and how they like to communicate—from greetings to gestures to non-verbal behaviour. Build your know-how by observing, asking questions, watching movies, reading current affairs articles and researching online.

Clarify your intentions. Explaining what you mean can save lots of trouble. For example, it can be helpful to explain to someone, “I tend to be very direct with people, but I don’t mean to cause offence.” It tells people you don’t mean to offend and makes them feel more comfortable asking you to explain something again.

Put yourself in their shoes. We all have preferences as to what we like and dislike when it comes to communication, and we tend to make quick judgments about people based on these preferences. The challenge is to stay open to other ways of communicating. One of the best ways to do this is simply to ask yourself, “What would I be thinking if I were the other person right now?” This will help prevent your personal preferences from overly influencing the situation.

Take a step back from the situation. Whenever you find yourself in a confusing situation, get into the habit of asking, “Could this be a cultural difference?” If so, the person’s intentions are probably good ones. Knowing this can help you to not take things personally.

Do not stereotype; read individuals. It can be easy to find yourself treating someone as if they are a member of a cultural group (e.g; I’m talking to an Arab man) rather than as an individual (e.g; I’m talking to Abdullah). Knowing a person’s cultural background provides interesting clues about how that person may behave, but we are all complex human beings. If you find yourself treating someone as if they are typical of a group, try to think of that person as an individual, just like you.

Be patient and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Few mistakes permanently damage a relationship. As you develop your intercultural skills you will learn how to do things better next time. At first, we have to work hard to change our natural way of communicating or acting in particular situations, but with time and practice it becomes much easier.

We’ve put together some tips and things to be aware of in terms of etiquette and protocols when travelling to Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Brazil.

Caroline Osinski is global training manager at Kwintessential, a cross-cultural communications consultancy that provides intercultural training, translation, localization, interpreting and design services, based in Somerset, UK. She can be reached at COsinski@kwintessential.co.uk. Or follow on Twitter at @kwint_train

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Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the August 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.