I’ve been talking a lot lately about adjusting to a new cultural environment when you relocate for a job or other reasons. Making the initial life adjustments that come with a relocation – whether that’s across the state or around the globe – are only a piece of the total puzzle.
What’s another puzzle piece? Building and nurturing your relationships. As you might imagine, adjustment to a new culture enters into the relationship-building equation in a big way.
Building Relationships: A Cultural Perspective
In an HBR article, Building Relationships in Cultures That Don’t Do Small Talk, authors Andy Molinsky and Melissa Hahn relate the story of “Michael” who left his home office in Chicago for Frankfurt, Germany. After about a week, he was really missing home and wondering what could have gone so wrong.
To his mind, everyone seemed work-obsessed – unlike in the US, there was no casual talk, no chatter about weekend plans – and no one seemed to show much interest in his American background. It must be the “uncaring Germans”, Michael thought.
Then he began to wonder if he was the problem, so he set out determined to be friendly, to make small talk anywhere he could, to quickly establish friendships. The results weren’t what he hoped for – instead, people seemed more cold to him than before, especially his colleagues.
As it turns out, it wasn’t the “uncaring Germans” that Michael blamed initially. And it wasn’t Michael’s fault, either. It’s actually pretty simple: in Germany (and in many other regions as well), small talk isn’t as common as it is elsewhere in the world, like the US.
As the authors point out, for instance, people in China can appear guarded around people they don’t know well, especially when personal information enters into the conversation. In other areas, chit-chat about trivial subjects like the weather or traffic just isn’t embraced.
Easy Tips to Help You Build Better Relationships
The bottom line is that building relationships can take a lot of time in other cultures. Here are some key tips to remember as you work on establishing strong cross-cultural connections:
- Try not to jump to conclusions too quickly – for example, if someone doesn’t want to engage in lighthearted conversation, it doesn’t mean they dislike you.
- When you’re tempted to judge someone else (or an entire culture), take a time out to realize that just as you’ve been immersed in your own culture, others have their own way of living and engaging. Respect that.
- Learn more about your new environment. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to understand what’s considered acceptable behavior in a different culture. This can also help you develop strategies to build strong connections.
- Adjust your expectations. We humans can be pretty centered on one thing – ourselves and how we feel. The next time you’re in a situation where you feel awkward or uncomfortable, just think of how the other person feels!
- Try a different approach. Especially in cultures where relationship-building takes time, don’t expect to enjoy instant, overnight results. What you can do is lay the foundation for a strong relationship. Demonstrating a genuine interest in the culture can go a long way. If small talk is a no-no, identify what topics might make for appropriate conversation instead.
Why Timing Can Be Key
Here’s a bonus tip: Did you know that timing can be a key factor in building personal connections? According to Molinsky and Hahn in HBR, “The key is to recognize when it’s acceptable to build personal connections, because that might vary significantly across the day.”
In Japan and China, it’s common for people to go out after work at night for drinks or dinner. During this time, something interesting happens that wouldn’t normally occur in the day: small talk and discussion on topics that aren’t connected with work (even with the boss).
The strategies you use to build your relationships will vary depending on what culture you’re in. One concept, though, is universal: Resist the urge to give in to discouragement. Yes, there will be times when you feel embarrassed, out of place…defeated, even.
Remember in the story above how Michael first blamed the “uncaring Germans”, then pondered what could be wrong with himself? Even though it’s a challenge, try not to take things so personally. Be present in the moment – embrace it – and learn from it!
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Colleen Slaughter, Proud Executive Coach to the UN World Food Program, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
As an Executive Coach for Women in Leadership and Transformational Facilitator, my intention is to help leaders in positions of high influence to understand their worth at a profound level.
Supporting women leaders to truly thrive and step into their greatness, while succeeding in male-dominated industries and spaces is my native genius.
My technique and approach show you how to achieve incredible career success without compromising any part of who you are and what makes you magnificent.