In the international business world the first face-to-face meeting with business counterparts can significantly influence the success of the relationship, negotiation or contract. Many people underestimate the impact of first impressions which can either unite or alienate people forever.
Psychologists studying the phenomenon of ‘first impressions’ suggest that if the person wants to be accepted and trusted by his or her peers, all verbal and non-verbal messages should complement each other. Practically, this means that none of the sent signals should go into conflict with another signal sent at the same time.For example, a British person saying ‘yes’ while rubbing their head and raising their eyebrows may not give the message of ‘yes’ to the other person but rather a message of ‘I’m saying yes but I’m not really sure’. While the person receiving the message understands something different than what the sender intended, the sender does not often realise that the receiver hasn’t understood their message in the first place.
Examples of where people use conflicting verbal and non-verbal signals increases significantly in intercultural interactions. This is primarily because a non-verbal signal such as gestures or facial expressions in one culture can often mean something completely different in another, frequently resulting in misunderstandings and confusion.
Smiles are something that can easily be misinterpreted by people from different cultures. Smiling in North America is usually a sign of happiness and confidence as well as an effort to build rapport. In Russia, people often smile when they are happy or when something really funny takes place but you may find they do not smile quite as much as their counterparts in North America. Meanwhile, in many Asian cultures, smiling is often a signal that they are embarrassed or uncomfortable.
Take the example of an American manager who was once visiting some business counterparts in China to celebrate the opening of a new factory. The Chinese wanted to be sure everything was perfectly organised to really impress their new manager so they booked the American manager in a nice hotel and organised lots of social events in the evening. The morning after the first evening, the American manager woke to find no hot water in the hotel. He went down to the reception to complain but was greeted with a smile. He was already frustrated about the situation and felt even more frustrated by the smiling response from the receptionist. He later mentioned the situation to his Chinese counterparts in frustration and they too, smiled in return, and gave a small apology. This situation did not significantly hurt the visit or relationship, but it did leave the American manager feeling very confused about their reaction.
This is an example where a simple smile was completely misinterpreted. The North American may have thought the Chinese receptionist was smiling as they thought the situation was funny but the Chinese receptionist most likely felt uncomfortable and did not have a solution for the situation so was therefore trying to prevent loss of face.
This is a very basis example of where a simple smile can easily be misinterpreted and change the perception people have of each other. This kind of communication breakdown can be more effectively anticipated and understood by taking part in a cross cultural training course such as Doing Business in China. Intercultural Training China programmes such as this can help business people understand Chinese values such as face as well as the different communication styles and non-verbal gestures such as smiling to ensure they correctly interpret and understand any interactions with their Chinese counterparts. By accentuating the differences between cultures, intercultural training can help anyone doing business internationally pay more attention to the details and suggest strategies to overcome any possible cross cultural miscommunication.