A smile transcends cultural biases

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A smile transcends cultural biases
Daily management of the EPIA includes many diverse activities. As a young association with members in 20 countries there are often cultural hurdles to understanding and clear communication. Although our “official” language is English, our members speak many languages and often several during any conversation during meetings or personal exchanges of casual pleasantries. Some of our members’ native languages we cannot even write using our laptops to compose messages because our keyboards do not include the letters used in those languages. Then there are the cultural differences. How does one know how the most common phrase will be understood by others living in a completely different environment with very different daily issues to solve.
Even our “official” English language has significant differences. Our annual convention for 2013 is in Palermo and convenes on October 23. So is that 10/23/2013 or 23/10/2013? Let’s say our budget is a billion in currency (don’t we wish). Is that Pounds (£), Euro (€), Dollars ($), and is it 1,000,000,000,000 (million million as in England) or 1,000,000,000 (thousand million) as in the U.S.? Even for a snack do we serve biscuits and chips meaning cookies and French fries at our convention in York, UK or an unleavened roll and potato chips in American English?
Sometimes we can’t even meet in hotels without confusion. Is the “first floor” the ground floor where the lobby is or the floor above the lobby? And what about common clothing items such as “pants” and “vests”. In England these items of apparel are underwear while in the U.S. I could be wearing a three piece suit without my coat. So if I ask my well dressed lady colleague to meet me on the “first” floor but wear your pants suit informally without your coat—meaning meet me in the lobby, will she come to my room in her underwear?
I am told that in France and some other European countries that charity is normally shown by monetary payment not by donating time and effort. While Americans normally offer their personal services and time more often than cash. Does that mean that Americans are thought of as not generous when it comes to charity toward others?

Our members live in different countries with different rules, regulations and laws. Within each country the rules, regulations and laws for that country apply. One country’s legislation does not apply to any other country. Another country’s legislation does not apply to the country of another EPIA member.  Different countries have different rules as we so clearly found out when we “moved” our association domicile from Germany to Spain. How difficult do you think it was to transfer our meager funds from a German bank to a Spanish bank without paying a steep price for the privilege? And what about how we have to handle the VAT taxes within and between various countries. Even our dues are handled strangely. If we “invoice” our dues we must pay tax on them when we sent the invoice not when or if we receive the money. Oh, and in some countries such as Italy, the bank will not pay from your bank account “current account” unless there is a formal invoice to be paid. Isn’t it my money to do as I please with it?

Even the most normal things are different. In many European countries eggs are not refrigerated. While in the U.S. we keep them in the refrigerator for health reasons. How can that be? Are the hens different on each side of the Atlantic? As usual, the answer is simply different ways of doing things. In the U.S. eggs are cleaned before they are sold and this destroys the natural protection the hen gives to its eggs. In France and Italy eggs do not go through the same process.  Eggs still have this protective covering and do not need to be refrigerated. Is there a right or wrong way?  No.  These are just different ways of doing things.

Even the requirement for light and power for our normal every day needs can be a chore. Sure my laptop will run on 110 volt 60 cycle power or 240 volt 50 cycle power, but can I plug it in. England has these very large plugs with three prongs that only fit receptacles in England; Spain has receptacles that take the “German” plug with three widely spaced prongs; Italy uses several variations, two prong, three prong, or widely spaced “German” three prong plugs, but they don’t fit the same receptacles! Let’s just assume you remembered to bring along a plug adapter for your hair dryer or razor from the States. Go ahead and plug it into the socket in the bathroom, water closet, toilet (depending on what country you are visiting)—what a light show with all the sparks and smoke if you forgot the power converter from 240 to 110!

But there is common ground, the smile. The smile can bridge many cultures, but this also can be fraught with challenge when it used to be polite. One of the ingredients to politeness is respect. What may be considered respectful in one country can be considered disrespectful in another.

In most southern European countries, some social interaction is expected before starting. In some countries people place a greater importance on relationships than we do in the U.S.  We often say “it’s only business”, but in other places business and personal relationships are intertwined.  In these cultures, it would be considered extremely rude to get right to work without inquiring about someone’s health or family. People like to know how you are and what you have been doing since seeing you the last time, or just get to know you before beginning a business meeting.  You can talk about your recent vacation or new baby. 

But this is not the case in all European countries. In Switzerland and Germany for example, people usually want to skip the pleasantries and get the meeting started. This preliminary social interaction could be seen as a lack of respect for their time. That is not to say that the Swiss or Germans do not like social interaction and pre-meeting networking. They just prefer it to be in another forum and not a prelude to business.

Now that the meeting has started we might find that respectful disagreement with colleagues as is so expected in the U.S. where different opinions and competing ideas are often hashed out in group meetings is not the norm.  In some other cultures, directly disagreeing is seen as rude and inappropriate, especially with more reserved individuals and especially in front of others.  Disagreement may be expressed so mildly by others that an American doesn’t even notice.

Even mild questioning of authority figures is taboo in certain cultures.  The offended may constantly smile and nod during the discussion, giving the impression that they agree when in fact they do not.  Some people may also fail to raise issues or concerns during a discussion because of their belief that a person in a position of authority must be unquestioningly obeyed based upon his or her position in the organization.  This can stifle healthy and useful interchange of ideas during our association meetings and one-on-one conversations
I found a perfect example of a cross-cultural example. An American was visiting a cemetery one day when he noticed an Asian gentleman putting a bowl or fruit on a grave. The American in his typical friendly, but ironic manner said “when do you think your friend will be eating that fruit?” The Asian gentleman responded “the same time yours will be smelling those flowers”.

This story makes a clear point about the blindness of cultural biases.  The way we’ve always done things makes sense to us, but not necessarily to others.  And the habits, words, and gestures of other people may seem confusing or odd to us.  In an increasingly cross-cultural workplace, many misunderstandings can arise from cultural differences in communication. 

Cultures have habits that seem so natural that they are not explained when plans are made. For example: An American and Italian plan to meet to discuss something over a quick lunch one day while at our 2013 convention in Italy (actually Palermo, Sicily—not sure Sicilians feel they are Italian). In the U.S. we plan for and expect meetings to start on time and lunch would normally be at noon for 45 minutes to an hour.  We are therefore surprised when our Italian colleague from a different culture shows up at 1:00 PM and plans to sit and eat for two hours before taking a short nap.  Cultures differ greatly in their sense of time urgency. 
We in the U.S. are a very informal society relative to the more formal European countries.  We often begin using someone’s first name as soon as we meet them, sometimes even taking the liberty of giving them a nickname (Tom for Thomas, Liz for Elizabeth).  In more reserved cultures, people are addressed formally for a much longer period, and first names are not used until the person gives permission.  American surnames always come last (John Smith is Mr. Smith); some other countries put the surname first. In Italy the surname comes last, but I was often call Mr. Stan, but not always. Maybe it was not as formal as Mr. Williams and not as informal as Stan—I never found out. Maybe it was because the Italian alphabet has no “W” or for that matter “J”, “K”, “X”, or “Y”.
Then we have the “hot” words and phrases that can easily cause laughter and possible embarrassment. In French, “Je suis excite” does not mean I am excited... it means I'm sexually excited. So be careful when you say that or who you are saying that to at our annual conventions or when dealing with our Supplier Members about an ice maker or merchandiser.
English words and phrases may not retain their expected or intended meaning when translated.  And even when we speak the same language, as with the U.S. and the U.K., there can be confusion.  For example, one of our American EPIA members wife at our convention in York was quite surprised on the last day of the convention when a departing British colleague cheerily said, “Well, I’ll knock you up when I see you in Palermo in October” (meaning “ring you up” or “look you up” in U.K. English).  Conversely, an American startled her British dinner companions at our first night banquet when she leaned back after that large meal and sighed, “I’m stuffed!” (meaning in U.K. English that she just had sex).
One thing that still rings true is that a genuinely friendly smile is understood by virtually everyone in every country! Hope to see you at the convention in Athens in November 2014, but always smile and be careful what you say.

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