So, now that we’ve talked about style (see my first two blog entries). We need to also factor in culture as we do our best to delight our clients and build their trust.
Business people of diverse origins often speak multiple languages and frequently default to English when dealing with US creatives. Even when living in other parts of the world, clients sometimes operate on shifted hours to sync up with Eastern time zone (UTC−05:00) schedules. With all of this accommodation, it is easy to get comfortable with people catering to us.
My challenge here isn't to drop everything and go learn Mandarin (although if you can do that... Dang, why not?!). Rather, be conscientious of the concessions being made for you by your own clients. Also, no matter how US-savvy they seem, there's no excuse for you to be ignorant of their cultures. A little quick research can go a long way.
Language especially can be more of a problem than we think. Just because someone speaks English well, doesn’t mean they will grasp your technical jargon, cliches and phrases. They may also miss out on tonal cues, that you think are obvious, like sarcasm.
On the flip side, "Yes" and "No" don’t always mean yes and no. English is a low-context language. It’s probably part of the reason it is used so prevalently. Essentially what is stated is usually what is meant (except in the examples noted above). However, many cultures are more accustomed to high context communication, where (according to uglobaleyes.com) there is minimal information in the words used; the listener is expected to add a lot of personal and environmental context to the message.
This is hard to do when your not in the room with the person and nearly impossible if you aren't paying attention. A quick answer without any follow-up details and maybe a change of subject could indicate the person does not believe what they are saying.
Case in point: On a conference call, you ask your client, from India, if they can get their content over before next week. They say yes and quickly go on to describe their upcoming family plans. That might actually mean “hopefully so,” “maybe,” or just plain “ain’t gonna happen, but I don’t want to say it out loud.”
According to an article in Quartz:
“In the East Asian cultures, open disagreement is taboo—indeed most Asians are nervous about it. British people also dislike open conflict and use various instances of coded speech to soften their opposition in conversation.”
The point is, you can't always take what is said at face value. You have to consider the culture and context of the speaker. And you may have to find less confrontational ways to dig for true sentiments.
Color, symbols and phrasing
In writing and design, we’re taught about the dangers of using commonly-accepted US symbols, color meanings and phrases for our international clients. Though it shouldn't be shocking or new information, it is easy to forget if you don’t make an effort to think about it.
Color, symbols and phrases can be interpreted differently depending on the culture you are designing for. When I was tasked with designing a retail readiness guide for worldwide distribution, even the English versions had to be altered significantly. For Canada, we had to include French translations. Australia needed altered seasonal photography. And the UK and Australia referred to the holiday season as Christmas, which would have been taboo in US-corporate communications. Just imagine how much the Chinese and Egyptian editions would have changed.
Truly paying attention to your clients and their culture pays off. For Joseph di Pasquale, it paid off in millions.
Di Pasquale, an Italian, was the only foreign architect invited to the Chinese competition for a new landmark building. As he put it, “...I wanted to search for a native type of landmark that is linked with their tradition. I took this input I got from the client.” Against odds, he won the competition, bringing the Guangzhou Circle to fruition.
It's worth noting that all of the Chinese architects from the competition focused on the client’s desire to have an international symbol and they designed more western looking structures. The client did say they wanted “international” but there was more context that needed to be picked up on.
Read the full article and interview at designboom.
So when you are working with international clients, or even local clients from diverse backgrounds, taking some time to research their culture will help them feel respected and catered to. The end goal is always to build trust, so listen closely and pay extra attention to the nuances of their communication. And finally provide them with a product that resonates. If you can do all of these things, then you'll win clients for life.
If you like this entry, please come back and check out my forthcoming entry on the VIP treatment.
Thanks and happy creating!