Being influential across cultures

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the European office of a large US-based NGO. We had a fascinating conversation about cross-cultural advocacy, communications and fundraising and I thought some of the insights we discussed would make for interesting reflections to be shared here.

Communicating effectively across cultures is a skill required of every job in the international non-profit sector, but few people are really great communicators — either in their own culture and language or across a couple of different ones. Hiring practices in this sector too often, in my opinion, place too much emphasis on specific technical skills and previous experience that exactly mirrors the job at hand. I also know this is a challenge in more industries than just my own.

In the vast majority of situations I’ve been in, poor advocacy and communications are not a result of a failure to grasp the policy issues at stake. Most smart people who are astute analytical thinkers, have a strong work ethic and are adept at reading and synthesizing information can grasp new and complex issues rapidly and well. Rather, poor advocacy and communications are typically a failure to effectively communicate messages — and invariably a good chunk of that ineffectiveness is due to a lack of understanding of the cultural situation at hand.

Every culture out there has stereotypes, norms and certain values that inform how we talk to each other, write to each other, read each others’ words and interpret each others’ visual cues. Many of us in the international sector love chatting ‘culture’ over a glass of wine or two. A typical conversation might go something like: “Oh yeah, our French logistician was just so French! Always smoking, swearing and drinking.” Or another: “Our Germans doctors were just so German — so inflexible and obsessed with rules. I don’t hire Germans anymore.”

Cross-cultural communication is obviously more than just joking about stereotypes. I’m not going to try to lay out here all my thoughts on the best ways to be influential country by country. I also cannot claim to be an expert in every culture! But here are the the basic questions I ask myself before meeting with people from outside of my own culture. It’s also good to note that many of these basic questions are the same even when you’re all from the same culture.

A. Consider how their culture may change how receptive they are of your message.

  • Are you the right person to communicate the message (youth vs age? female versus male? same nationality vs different nationality?)?
  • Do you need to come straight out with your message (direct style of communication), or do you need to gently/slowly/in a roundabout manner arrive as your message (indirect style of communication)? Some cultures highly value directness, to the point of being blunt; others expect some form of what is considered politeness when speaking.

B. Consider how their culture may view you and the culture you represent. The culture you represent may be “international community” in addition to or instead of your actual nationality or native culture. How will their view of you change how receptive they are of your message?

C. Decide before the meeting how much you’re going to embrace your own cultural traits/dress/word choice when speaking with them, and how much you may alter your presentation in consideration for their culture.

A lot of people I’ve met think they need to always come as close as possible to the culture of the person they’re meeting. That is not always the best choice to be influential.

Sometimes people only listen to what you have to say if you’re an outsider. Or it may turn out that Mr. Swiss Funder was educated in New York and he would love to have a nice chat with a New Yorker, which happens to be your hometown. Other times your culture may be esteemed by the other person’s culture in a way that is relevant to your presentation (for example, people may tell me they like how organized Germans tend to be, and thus they pay close attention when I talk about organization).

Never underestimate the power of the personal experience, even in the most formal of settings. Depending on the situation, I may drop a small detail about my personal life (it can be very innocuous, like the town I live in) because the person I’m speaking with may have a connection to that, and thus be more receptive of my message. Of course, how much of your own culture and personal experiences you display in a given setting is a sensitive decision and is ideally informed by previous research as well as terrific observational skills (akin to emotional intelligence) in the moment.


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