Seeing Eye-to-eye across Cultures

Matthew MacLachlan

26 May 2010

 

Face-to-face meetings have a tremendous importance in the global business world. It is during these occasions that important matters are discussed and contracts are signed. Face-to-face encounters can sometimes be difficult to handle, however, especially when meeting people from different cultures where the risks of intercultural misunderstanding can jeopardise business opportunities.

One benefit of meeting international counterparts face-to-face is the ability to communicate directly without relying on virtual communication that can result in misunderstandings and confusion. While direct communication is channelled mainly by words and sentences, the major part of our message is delivered through our body language.

Let’s take the example of how we look at people during a conversation. In most western cultures, looking at someone in the eyes when talking is regarded as a sign of respect and truthfulness while the lack or absence of eye contact is perceived negatively as shyness or lack of attention. This perception is not shared by everyone however.

In many Arabic and Asian cultures, for instance, looking directly into someone’s eyes can be seen as disrespectful or challenging and should therefore be avoided, especially during important meetings. A French team leader and Chinese executive may experience difficulties when communicating face-to-face because of their different expectations and interpretations of eye contact. The French team leader will likely make efforts to look at the Chinese executive to build trust and establish credibility. Meanwhile, the Chinese executive may expect more indirect eye contact as this shows respect to more senior individuals. The different interpretations of eye contact can end up damaging the relationship and create misunderstanding.

This kind of cultural misunderstanding can be common without intercultural training. By participating in one of Communicaid’s Intercultural Training courses, you can increase your understanding of when and how eye contact is appropriate or not, reducing the potential for miscommunication and negative perceptions. Communicaid’s Living and Working in France or Doing Business in China cross cultural awareness training courses can help you and your organisation to gain a better understanding of your international counterparts and help you to face the challenges rising from cross cultural situations.

 



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