How can your business benefit from understanding cultural customs?

By Estrella Chan, Founder, English Around the World.com

Recently, I presented at a Biz Diversity event.  The topic was about how to benefit our business from understanding other cultures.

I shared examples from my personal experience.  I was at an interview at a college.  There were 18 people in the interview panel.  I had a very delightful time with this very diverse committee.  When the interview finished, the chairman of the committee walked me to the door.  That in itself is not that unusual.  What follows is.  Instead of returning to the room, he waited until I was out of his sight before he turned his back to get back to the interview room.

I was very impressed by this behavior.  He knew the traditional custom of my culture!  Even though this may not be practiced by everyone in my culture today, the custom feels very hospitable and warm.

If I were the customer of this chairman, he had just scored some major points!  Imagine having a customer who is impressed by your behavior!   If everything else is equal with competitors, you would certainly have an edge over them.

Another example I shared was being at a workshop where one woman made herself comfortable by putting her feet up (with shoes on) on another chair.  When I returned to my seat, the woman immediately removed her feet from the chair, even though that was not even my chair.

I was impressed by the behavior of this woman. She knew that putting her feet up on a chair could be interpreted as less than respectful in my culture.  She didn’t have to do that, but she did.  And I appreciate her desire to show respect to me.

Again, if I were her customer, she would have scored big points with me!   A customer who feels respected will appreciate you.   Even if they don’t shop at your store, they will let their friends and family about how she was treated by you.

What to do when you cannot understand your customers’ English

Someone in the audience asked if any of my immigrant clients encountered painful experience in their interactions here.  Yes.  An example is a client who’s been here for only a month when she went to a shopping mall by herself.  She speaks English just fine.  I understand everything she said.  However, the store clerk did not understand her, and said, “Whaaat?” in a tone that conveyed to my client that her English is incomprehensible.  My client felt from the clerk’s tone that because she speaks English with an accent, serving her with respect is not important.

My client never returned to that store.  The company lost a potentially regular customer because of this one employee.

This is not an uncommon occurrence.  Imagine being the owner of a company, and not even realizing that because of one employee’s behavior, the company had just lost potential profit.  And that’s not just one customer.  That one customer will tell her friends and family about her experience.  Now the company had just lost the potential business of all those people too.

So how else could the clerk have responded when she did not understand my client’s English?  Something like “I’m sorry,” “Pardon me,” “Would you say that again please?” would all be better than the impatient tone with which she said “Whaaat?”

Tone conveys so much. You can say the same word in different tones, and the listener would receive the message differently.

One of my IT clients shared with me that in the 2 years that he had been working here, his confidence has been affected negatively because on a regular bases someone would ask him to repeat what he said.  And this client is very accomplished in his country, including being a recipient of a Presidential award.  Yes, from the president of his country!

How to become culturally savvy even without travelling

It is easier to understand accents of different countries when one has been exposed to them through travels.  But what can a person do if he does not have the opportunity to travel to different countries?  Not to worry.  There are ways to develop this skill.  The Seattle and Bellevue area have very diverse populations.  If you are up for an adventure, go to ethnic stores and observe the interactions among native speakers.  Listen to the tone in their language.  Are there patterns?  What is the speed of their speech?  Is it melodic?  Is it staccato?  Pretend you are a linguist interested in language patterns.  Have fun with this!

Also, study the body language while you are in the stores.  How close do strangers stand to each other?  Friends?  Do strangers talk to each other?  Body language, posture, volume of their speech.  How do they laugh?  Do they cover their mouth when they laugh?  Do they have belly laugh?  Eye contact.  Do they maintain eye contact?  And between men and women?  How much eye contact is there?  How do they carry their body?  Do they round their shoulders or pull their shoulders back?  Standing straight and tall can mean different things in different cultures.

Approach this adventure as a cultural anthropologist.  Make it fun for you.  And while you are having fun pretending to be a linguist and cultural anthropologist, you are on your way to becoming a savvy “traveller at home.”   Not only that, your business will benefit from your new knowledge and understanding of other cultures!