. . . cultural heritage and identity inform an individual’s psyche, translating into traits, communication style and behavior.

As a Brazilian native residing in the United States, I’ve had to utter that sentence countless times.  So it is sort of a relief that this year, due to the Olympic Games’ taking place in Rio de Janeiro, the world is being offered more information on my home country. Sadly, however, the U.S.-based broadcast still spelled football as futbol (in broken Spanish, rather than futebol) during the opening ceremony, and when perusing an airline magazine the other day, I noticed a highlight on the larger story about Rio intending to enlighten readers on why Brazilians speak Portuguese “instead of Spanish”. (Sigh.)

Poor cultural awareness can hurt your business.

No matter how cosmopolitan, worldly, or well-traveled one is, cultural heritage and identity inform an individual’s psyche, translating into traits, communication style and behavior. I personally come from a diverse ethnicity (mostly Western European, not Hispanic), as most Brazilians do, but in the United States I am frequently, and mistakenly, pigeonholed in the seemingly all-encompassing “Latino” label. However, this article is not really about me. Indians who are compared to Pakistanis; Canadians who are mistaken for Americans, or Australians who face the obtuse perception that they are the same as New Zealanders, may feel the same pain.

Cultural awareness can make or break relations. Being unaware of a country’s characteristics and its people’s perceptions about themselves may create antagonism between professionals as well as social acquaintances. When it comes to business, being ignorant about a customer’s background may result in offending her identity, or at a minimum, hinting that you are not as knowledgeable and competent as you want to be perceived. Caring about your interlocutor’s origins is simply a matter of respect.

Asking the right questions will reduce the chances of a faux-pas.

Evidently, nobody knows everything, or is versed in all cultures. We are all eternal learners, and although today’s world is incredibly globalized and may, at times, seem seamless, it is still large and diverse enough that it makes understanding the differences a daunting endeavor. So how do we go about interacting with other cultures without offending anyone, or coming across as unintelligent?

When you have the privilege of traveling abroad, you easily absorb colors, sounds, beliefs and customs. But if you are not traveling, my simple suggestion is: don’t assume. Before meeting with someone from a different country, do your homework, and try to learn as much as possible about the place and its people. If you don’t know in advance that the person you’ll meet has a different background, just ask questions. Ask smart questions – by not assuming your perception is correct. Avoid saying: “is your cuisine similar to that of x country?” and ask instead “how would you describe the cuisine of your country?”. If you show genuine interest for someone’s nationality, he will certainly appreciate it; take the time to share what is most important or curious about his culture, and likely want to acquire more knowledge on yours.

Respect is key.

Business relations can only be enriched by our willingness to understand each other; the best managers become true leaders when they learn to deal with different personalities and work styles. And being culturally aware makes them better equipped to incorporate those differences and turn them into advantages. But a more basic skill – or duty, really – is to show respect for everyone we meet, and that will go very far, in business and in life.

 

By Viviane Vicente