Cultural Connections: Global & Cultural Differences
Publication: Association Conventions & Facilities
Author: Maura Keller

When a conference presenter looks out on a room of association professionals, he or she is likely to see a multicultural mix of people. In fact, today’s typical meeting or conference is a dramatically different place than it was just 10 or 15 years ago as the U.S. population continues to become more diverse. In addition, as more associations are going global, planners and attendees are experiencing global cultures in new ways.

In the last several decades, the United States has truly become a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. And the impact on meeting and events professionals and the associations that they work with is evident in all facets of business. From multi-language contracts to bilingual presentations, to diversity marketing campaigns, revolutionary change is reshaping business practices to address the needs of our diverse culture.

According to Jamie Gelbtuch, founder of Cultural Mixology in New York, New York, the majority of meeting professionals and others in the industry are well intentioned as it relates to global and cultural differences. It’s often not what we’re doing intentionally, but rather what we are doing unintentionally that can create a non-inclusive environment.

“By taking the time to do research around cultural differences up front, we can slow down our thinking and planning just enough to prevent critical mistakes,” Gelbtuch says. “Even learning some basic do’s and don’ts at the initial stages of working in a new culture may help meeting professionals understand more quickly what is going on and reduce the chances of unintentionally causing offense.”

Tom Morgan, principal consultant at Morgan Intercultural in Fairfield, Iowa, says event planners these days need to operate with a global mindset. We live in an ever-more globalized and interconnected world. One way or another, these days pretty much all business is global.

“Whether dealing with global attendees at U.S. events or with events occurring outside the U.S., event planners increasingly find themselves working in multicultural environments, doing their best to communicate across cultural boundaries, encountering differences in everything from communication and negotiation styles to time perception, to business etiquette to conflicting values about the meaning and purpose of life itself,” Morgan says. “You don’t have to plan an event in Berlin or Beijing to encounter those kinds of differences. Even event planners operating in their own U.S. home towns are dealing with cultural differences aplenty.”

Meeting planner Kerry Painter, CCFE, CEM, CMP, director/ general manager of the Raleigh Convention and Performing Arts Complex, stresses that hospitality is the art of making guests feel welcomed and appreciated.

“Every day, our industry is tasked with creating welcoming, engaging experiences that further the goals of our clients, but this can only happen when attendees feel safe and included. By being respectful to global cultures, we work to ensure that attendees will spend their energy where it matters most: connecting and growing,” Painter says.

Mistakes to Avoid

Morgan says that differences in values orientations — ways of seeing power, hierarchy, identity, time, space, communication, context and relationships — lead to daily misunderstandings.

“These cultural differences are a much greater factor in the success or failure of all our business transactions, and meetings and events, than most people realize,” Morgan says. “One of the misunderstandings a lot of people have when it comes to the subject of intercultural differences is the idea that memorizing a checklist of customs and etiquette rules is all you have to do to prepare for cultural differences in your work. If you rely only on that approach, chances are you’re not really well prepared for cultural differences at all.”

For example, as any event planner knows, there are variations around the world in eating etiquette and dietary preferences and restrictions, and so forth. Since many, if not most, events involve providing some sort of sustenance for guests, the competent event planner will want to get cultural dining differences right.

“But an over-reliance on superficial do’s and don’ts lists one may find online can lead the inexperienced event planner down the wrong path,” Morgan says. “A quick Google search, for example, yields many oft-quoted rules of dining etiquette in India: We’re told, for example, that Indians do not usually use cutlery for eating food, preferring instead to eat with their fingers. While there’s a lot of truth to this in the context of many or most Indian homes in India, it’s important to understand that any etiquette rule we might learn may not translate well to an event we’re planning in, say, St. Louis, Missouri.”

Morgan recommends that the globally minded event planner must go beyond the superficial rules and deeply comprehend the cultural context in which the event is occurring.

“Chances are, guests of Indian origin at a formal event in the west would themselves be adapting to western norms and would be expecting to be using the cutlery provided,” Morgan says. “The inexperienced event planner relying on internet research would have been misled. The expert event planner would instead try to find out about the actual people attending the event — what their norms and preferences are and what they are actually used to doing.”

Some meeting professionals also fall prey to the idea that country and culture are the same thing, which results in stereotyping. In fact, Gelbtuch points to a recent study of four work-related values across 32 countries in which they found that more than 80% of the differences in the values were found within countries, and less than 20% were found between countries.

“Another mistake is believing that cultures that seem similar on the surface are actually the same,” Gelbtuch says. “In an ever-globalizing world, similarities in language, appearance, behaviors, or even many foods often mask much more substantial differences in values, traditions or beliefs that play important roles in the respective cultures.”

For example, personal space is a reflection of culture and may impact the design or layout of meeting spaces. As Meret Scheidemann, Assistant, Marketing & Communications at Cultural Mixology points out, Americans normally tend to prefer standing 3 feet away when having a conversation with a new acquaintance and may leave an empty seat between themselves and the next person when choosing a seat in a room to respect this invisible boundary. On the other hand, in Latin American countries, such as Argentina, people tend to stand very close to each other when talking to strangers or new acquaintances, only 2.5 feet away, and may take a seat right next to someone else.

And, in the rush of meetings and events, Painter says it can be hard to remember the power of the little details or gestures that may seem small to us but are impactful for others. “Given the nature of the work, I think the majority of planners are sensitive to cultural differences and that most people, especially frequent international travelers, are relatively forgiving of any cultural misunderstandings that might arise when abroad,” Painter says. “However, it goes a long way to honor the customs of those visiting from abroad — to show appreciation for them by preparing for their visit and being thoughtful about their needs and expectations.”

When assessing a plan for international attendees, even the smallest elements are impactful. For example, power can be an issue since voltage output can vary from country from country.

“Without proper attention to power sources, a venue’s operations team, vendors or attendees may need to scramble at the last minute to get the right adapter,” Painter says. “Or, if unprepared for a large group of attendees with strict religious or cultural dietary needs, a portion of the audience may be frustrated that they missed important programming while searching for meals offsite — even more of a challenge for someone who does not speak the native language or has accessibility needs.”

Customs to Consider

When working with a Japanese business association focused on building U.S. relations, Painter and her staff spent time researching and practicing their proper business etiquette. This exercise, which they replicate often, brought to light the importance of handing business cards with respect. “We knew to present and accept business cards with both hands, to bow when giving or receiving cards, and to not write on them,” Painter says. “This simple demonstration of respect, which required no words and took only a few minutes to learn, made a lasting impression with our clients and attendees.”

Gelbtuch says it’s important for meeting professionals to remember that culture exists on many levels, and when striving to make attendees from different cultures feel comfortable, it is equally, if not more, important to consider the “culture” of the industry, occupation or even generation of attendees, which can all override national cultural differences.

“Think about your own culture first. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I often recommend that people read a book or resources about their own culture,” Gelbtuch says. “It brings many of the invisible, out of awareness aspects of culture to the front of our minds as we generally don’t think that much about cultural differences until we are the proverbial fish out of water. This exercise also reminds us of the danger of stereotypes because, as we do this research, we inevitably realize that there are aspects that don’t necessarily apply to particular regions or individuals within a culture.”

Also be sure to look for uncomfortable moments as you interact with attendees and planners throughout the process. These are our mental cues about differences and potential opportunities to adapt. One way intercultural consultants help their clients includes giving them assessment tools that can measure the individual’s unique cultural profile. “When a client asks for our help at Morgan Intercultural, we’ll usually employ assessment tools to measure the individual’s or group’s cultural profiles,” Morgan says.

Let’s say a particular event planner — let’s call her Mary — grew up in the U.S. and works as a meeting planner in a large Midwestern city. Mary knows that, for a particular large event she has coming up, she is going to be working with clients from Japan.

What’s the first thing the intercultural consultant does? “Find out more about Mary’s cultural profile, and help her to understand the unique cultural lens she is looking through,” Morgan says. “As it turns out, one of the most important things we can do is to help the client increase his or her cultural self-awareness. Most of us can be much better at understanding the cultural lens we are looking through.”

The next thing Morgan might do is to help Mary to understand the overall cultural profile of the countries that will be represented in the meeting she’s organizing. Then, it becomes possible to identify what interculturalists call the “culture gaps” between Mary’s cultural orientation and that of the cultures with which she will be working.

“Once we’ve done that, we may notice that, for example, Mary tests as having a more direct communication style, Mary has a strong preference for “saying what she means, and meaning what she says.’ But the people she’s working with who come from Japan may be more used to a more indirect communication style,” Morgan says. “If Mary uses her usual more direct style, it’s possible that she will come across as being a bit too blunt for her Japanese meeting participants. If, on the other hand, Mary works on modifying her style a bit, and uses a little bit more indirect style, she may find her communication with her Japanese participant goes more smoothly.”

When Painter and her team anticipate site visits with clients from other countries or cultures, they conduct preliminary research and educate the team so they feel empowered to address any potential pressure points early in the process. “We’re fortunate to work in an industry where our counterparts are eager to share their experience with others,” Painter says. “Helping each other understand the finite details will help deliver a more robust and inclusive event. Don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues and partners who have hosted similar groups or attendees for their feedback. Cultural sensitivity training also is another great option. We’ve engaged our HR department and third-party consultants to help our staff better understand the perspective of some of our groups.”

Speaking more broadly, meeting professionals also should seek opportunities that are intentional about being inclusive and diverse. Collaborating on an event is an effective way to have internal staff work closely and, in turn, learn from their counterparts.

For example, some things you can learn about include how people from other cultures value time. Some may be more punctual while others more relaxed when it comes to being somewhere on time. And, when communicating with someone who isn’t fluent in English, make sure to adjust your English to fit the person who’s listening. You want them to be able to comprehend what you say, so make sure you use words and phrases they will understand. This means refraining from using slang, jargon or buzz words.

Also, according to research by CT Business Travel, the French prefer to shake hands lightly, as do the Japanese and South Koreans. And while pre-business conversations may be customary in Brazil, this is not the case in Russia or Switzerland. Also, while spoken communication techniques are important, it’s how you convey your message that’s really important. This means understanding subtle, non-verbal communication, such as body language.

To learn about these and other global nuances, cultural organizations or the country’s embassy are an overlooked resource. Many of these institutions exist specifically to educate people about their country or culture.

Meeting planners everywhere increasingly find themselves working in multicultural environments, encountering differences in everything from communication and negotiation styles to time perception, to business etiquette to conflicting values about the meaning and purpose of life itself. “What is easy and intuitive within one’s own culture can be clumsy, ineffective or incomprehensible in another,” Morgan says. “The cost of operating without what we call a ‘global mindset’ are incalculable. Intercultural incompetence slows us down, destroys trust, damages reputations, kills deals, ends international assignments prematurely, even causes entire ventures to fail.”

This is why global cultural diversity within the meetings and events industry is a topic that is not going away anytime soon. Morgan says that operating with a global mindset is being well prepared to deal with cultural differences on more than just a superficial level. “Globally minded businesspeople — let’s call them ‘global leaders’ — are capable of shifting perspectives, empathizing and decoding culturally diverse situations accurately,” Morgan says. “More than that, global leaders are able to exhibit culturally appropriate behavior in many different cultural contexts.”