Listening for cues and respecting cultural differences are two keys to success. Credit: Digital Vision Listening for cues and respecting cultural differences are two keys to success.
Credit: Digital Vision


Because of the increased globalization of the business world, it’s not unusual for many office workers to have colleagues who live in far-flung places around the world.

But constantly video-conferencing and emailing with people you may never meet in person has its challenges, especially if you know nothing about the cultural mores of your new colleagues. In her new book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” author and business professor Erin Meyer provides readers with a blueprint for navigating the sometimes-rocky road of cross-cultural business relations.


“What I say to my MBA students is that if you want to be successful in the future, you have to develop the skills to understand and ask the question: ‘How do I motivate my employees in different parts of the world?’” says Meyer.


Uncertain about how you can develop a successful partnership with a team of software engineers in India or a group of accountants in Sweden? Meyer says that a good manager can make things run smoothly despite been oceans away.


Take the time to build a personal relationship

“The United States is the most task-oriented culture in the world,” says Meyer. “The No. 1 mistake that Americans make when they’re trying to influence people in other parts of the world is that they don’t realize that other countries are more relationship-oriented than we are.”

Meyer says that American managers complain to her that they’ll send an email to their overseas colleagues with a message that says “Do this please” — and then they get angry and frustrated when they receive no response. “But [the managers] hadn’t spent some time building a little bit of a personal connection with [the recipient], and you can’t really do that over email,” points out Meyer.

Know when to call and when to email

“If you can talk over the phone in order to build up that initial connection before you move to email, that’s always better,” says Meyer. “And even better than that is if you can do Skype, because once people have seen your face, then you can use that opportunity to get to know them a little bit and then you can move to more task-oriented media like email.”

Try to break the ice

Sometimes it’s not possible to ever meet your co-workers face-to-face, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a connection. Meyer shares a story of how one manager broke the ice with his team of young Indian programmers by sending them YouTube videos of the latest pop songs, saying, “I love this song, this is what I love about it, it’s really hot in India right now — what do you think?” explains Meyer.

Acknowledge your mistakes

Unintentionally making an offensive remark happens, but there are ways to fix the damage. It is key to acknowledge your clumsiness and be open to change. Meyer says one of the managers she talked to won his team over with honestly. “It just didn’t occur to us that people in other parts of the world might be more focused on giving a softer relationship approach to things,” he says.

Don’t be afraid to ask about cultural differences

Sometimes the best way to avoid a cultural conflict is to simply talk to a trusted colleague about what you should do. “People love to talk about cultural differences, as long as you make it sound like you think the other culture is positive and you talk your own culture in a humble way,” says Meyer.

Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.