How to Network Across Cultures

Picture this: You are at a networking event and see across the room a potential employer from a company you’re interested in. You walk over to that person, look him in the eye, and say the following:

“Hello, I noticed that you’re from IBM. I’m very interested in IBM and would love to give you a sense of my background.”

I recently posed this scenario to a group of foreign-born professionals in the United States and then asked whether they believed that according to American cultural norms, the person’s statement was:

(a) Too direct
(b) Not direct enough
(c) Appropriately direct

I also posed the same question to a group of American-born professionals, and the answers from the two groups were telling.

All the American-born professionals in the room answered (c), that the statement was appropriately direct, and was a reasonable way to begin a networking conversation in the United States.

The foreign-born professionals, on the other hand, saw the situation quite differently. A few with extensive experience living and working in the United States agreed with the Americans. However, the large majority didn’t, answering (a) — that the behavior was too direct and assertive for an American-style networking event.

I then posed an additional question:

Imagine that a few minutes later you see another person across the room from a company you’re interested in. You walk over to that person and say the following in a tentative manner:

“Hello, sir. My name is ___________. I am so very honored to meet you. Would it be possible for me to introduce myself to you?”

Again, I had seminar participants assess the appropriateness of this statement according to American cultural norms: in particular, whether the statement was:

(a) Appropriately polite: When talking with someone at a networking event, especially someone senior to you in either age or professional background, it is important in the United States to be highly deferential.

(b) Too polite: Even when talking with someone senior to you in age or professional background, it is important not to be overly polite and deferential. It makes you look like you lack confidence and professionalism.

Again, all American-born individuals answered (b), whereas a large group of the foreign-born professionals, many of whom were from India, answered (a) — that the statement was appropriately polite for the situation.

The ability to network — to develop contacts and personal connections with a variety of people — is a critical skill for any global business leader. The only problem is that global networking can be extremely difficult to do when the rules for networking vary so dramatically across cultures. In fact, these cultural challenges can be so strong that many of the young potential foreign-born global leaders that I know often purposefully avoid networking opportunities in the United States — despite how important these opportunities can be for developing their careers.

Listen to the words of Ravi (name disguised to protect confidentiality), an Indian management consultant, who describes his experience participating at a networking event in the U.S.

I feel that I am performing a sin, trying to become something that I am not, being artificial and fake. For example, while trying to network, I try to sell myself, bragging about my abilities to a stranger. And that feels so weird and selfish to me, making me feel like I am doing things to achieve my objectives at all cost.

So what can be done? How can budding global professionals like Ravi acquire this critical global leadership skill?

In working with young global leaders like Ravi over the past 10 years, I have found three key tools for success in learning to adapt behavior across cultures in a networking situation or in any other situation where you need to switch your cultural behavior to be effective in a new setting.

Learn from those around you: Watch carefully how others operate in networking situations, and learn what behaviors work and don’t work in that setting. Customize your own approach from what you observe to develop a style that feels authentic to you, and that is also effective in the new setting.

Master the new cultural logic: Learn the rationale for this new behavior from the perspective of the new culture. Learn, for example, why “small talk” is such an important part of networking in the United States. Understand from the American point of view why it’s actually appropriate to speak positively about yourself and your qualifications. Master the logic of the new culture and the behavior will feel much more comfortable to perform.

Finally, Practice! Practice multiple times, and ideally in settings that mimic the stress and pressure of real situations. Integrate the behavior so deeply into your psyche that it becomes your “new normal” — something you do naturally and instinctively.

Use these tools and you will master networking in no time. The bonus is that you will also learn a method that you can apply to any other global leadership situation you face — which perhaps is the greatest learning of all.

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.


This post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.

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