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Stranger In A Strange Land

Paying attention to cultural differences can smooth relationships with coworkers

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
April 7, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 14

Credit: Shutterstock
Acknowledging differences will help you work productively across cultural boundaries.
Multicultural group of men.
Credit: Shutterstock
Acknowledging differences will help you work productively across cultural boundaries.

These days you are probably working with people whose backgrounds are very different from yours. Your colleagues may act differently from you, make different assumptions, and perhaps even make you uncomfortable. By realizing that there is a range of acceptable behaviors, and learning where you and others fit within that range, you can help manage your expectations and work productively across cultural boundaries.

COMMUNICATION STYLES. Do you prefer to be loud and direct, or are you more soft-spoken and deferential? Do you address every member of a team, or only negotiate with the senior person? Do you consider feelings when making decisions, or only objective facts? In many cultures, people are loath to say “no,” or sometimes even to use negative language. For example, you need to know whether your boss’s suggestion that you “think some more about that idea” means you should keep developing it, or that it’s a bad idea and you should move on to something else. Sometimes this means asking for specific clarification, maybe even pushing for it; other times it means couching your own responses in terms that will make it more palatable for the other person.

TIME. How important are punctuality and planning? In some cultures, schedules are inviolate, requiring precise punctuality and significant advance planning. In others, meeting times are only a suggestion, and arriving hours late is perfectly acceptable. In an unfamiliar region, it’s best to begin by always being punctual; you can relax later as local custom allows.

Written timelines also differ. In documents, English-speaking people tend to write past dates on the left of a page, Arabic-speaking people place them on the right, and Mandarin speakers put them on the bottom. When you’re creating graphics for a diverse audience, make sure labels are clear so everyone can follow.

PROFESSIONALISM. When you meet a new group, do you assume the person in charge is the oldest (and presumably most experienced), male, the most educated, or the best dressed? The truth may be just the opposite. Don’t make assumptions about relative rank based on ideas from your own background. Treat all your colleagues with respect, which includes using their titles and surnames until invited to do otherwise. Similarly with clothing—if you’re not sure what to wear, err on the side of formality.

MIXING BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE. Do you prefer to get right down to work and keep business relationships professional, or do you want to make friends with your coworkers? In some cultures, negotiations are all about business; in others, a significant amount of socializing between the parties is expected before business begins. And in still other cultures, negotiations continue even after a contract is signed. Knowing what is standard, and thus expected, in the culture can help avoid surprises.

In the end, culture is not just geographic. No matter where you are from or where you are working, your style will differ from your colleagues’ in many ways, sometimes to the point where one or more people are uncomfortable. Realizing that there are many ways to get to the same endpoint, and asking for clarification when needed, can help you reach a middle ground where both parties are comfortable, and you can then focus on the work at hand.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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