In order to be in complete control of any situation anywhere in the world, you will need expertise in three kinds of language: spoken, unspoken, body.
Beyond the grammatical workings of sentence structure, the words chosen need to be appropriate for the audience in volume, tone, and speed. More importantly, make sure you choose an accent, yes an accent. When you learn a language, learn from many sources, so you can adapt based on time of day, and part of town. You will provide and receive better services if you speak similarly to the person you are conversing with. Be humble, and learn from everybody.
Also, practice the rhythm of how words are delivered. Are there pauses between speakers? Is it permitted to interject, even in friendly agreement? Is it appropriate or even expected to laugh along when someone is being witty? Observe conversations among locals, and pick up the choreography of the conversation.
Once you know the meaning of the words, make the time to study the other meanings behind those same words. There are secret codes hidden inside seemingly innocent phrases. The only way to know about them is to live, yes live in the country where you want to successfully converse. At the very least, you should be intimately familiar with the country’s pop culture, especially its musicians and comedians.
You may need to learn a whole song before realizing why a couple of words from it carry a deep, and hard to explain meaning. Sometimes, even just the tune of the song becomes a code. Often, people will warn you away from a potentially embarrassing situation by delivering the message in as few words as possible. If you have studied popular culture, the codes will quickly help you act based on information that is too complicated to deliver otherwise.
Men can usually be appropriately dressed in a nice suit, and shined shoes. It is more complicated for women to understand how much skin, hair, and attitude they can show. Even when a culture embraces equality for women, it is still a sign of respect to dress appropriately based on a land’s history and preferences.
Beyond the outfit, it is important to know how much touching is allowed between the sexes, if any. In some cultures, it is actually considered rude to turn your face away from a kiss on the cheek. And ladies, being liberated doesn’t mean you stop behaving like a lady. Again, this has different meanings depending on where you are visiting, so read up on what’s appropriate.
The Case for the Multicultural Marketer
As you’ve probably already figured out, it is not possible to fit in everywhere. You can choose your wardrobe, words and gestures most carefully, but at some point you will need to defer to a local or someone with stronger links to the native land and culture.
Does all of this sound overly complicated? It should. This is why companies will need to continue investing in diversity. Cultural mores can’t be taught in a crash-course or week-long seminar. The need for Multicultural professionals is real. I should know, I’m a Multicultural Marketer, and I’ve been training for this all my life. And while I fit in perfectly in a lot of places, I don’t fit in everywhere.
Where do you do business?
What is the secret to your multicultural success?
Silvia K. Spiva is a Multicultural Marketer, creating content for global audiences, from the heart of Silicon Valley. Her passions include children’s literacy, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), and finding ways to bridge if not crush the #DigitalDivide.