You’ve put in an offer for your client’s dream home, and you sure hope they get it. What do you text to them? Maybe the 🙏 emoji — or a row of them.
Although your buyer from the U.S. may interpret that as you do — as an indication that you’re hoping and praying to get the house — your Japanese buyer might see it as saying “please” or “thank you” without a religious connotation. Your buyer who is Muslim may not use this emoji in the context of prayer because joined palms are rarely associated with prayer in her culture.
Even good friends from the same background and generation can get their wires crossed. Now, imagine texting, emailing and chatting with buyers from a different country and culture, and you’ll see that there is plenty of room for misunderstanding. That’s why it’s vital to develop sensitivity to the way others perceive the world and communicate about it.
Cross-cultural competence involves the ways we communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, and it can make or break your business relationship. From giving away your power in a negotiation to committing rudeness in interpersonal relationships, a lack of cross-cultural competence can undermine a deal before it even begins.
What keeps us from understanding other cultures?
According to SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), there are many personal barriers that keep us from communicating effectively with other cultures. They identify six stages of development in how people conceptualize cross-cultural differences, as outlined by Brian Schroeder, Head of Culture and Communication at Microsoft:
- Denial: Some people do not acknowledge that there are differences at all so they have no curiosity or desire to reach out and interact with other cultures.
- Defense: Others think that their culture is the best one so there is no reason to recognize differences, much less to accommodate them.
- Minimization: Most people fall here in terms of cultural awareness. We focus on superficial similarities and ignore differences, so we miss out on context and a larger cultural picture.
- Acceptance: In this stage, people are flexible and willing to understand each other but not yet informed enough to creatively connect across cultural differences.
- Adaptation: People here are actively seeking for creative solutions so that they can communicate more effectively and overcome barriers.
- Integration: This stage is about celebrating differences and arriving at a shared space that accommodates those differences without minimizing them.
How does context inform cross-cultural communication?
One way of thinking about culture-based communication differences comes from American anthropologist Edward T. Hall. He developed his ideas while working for the U.S. Department of State in the 1950s. Hall stressed the importance of high-context and low-context cultures to explain differences in communication styles among people in different countries or language groups.
According to Hall, low context cultures, like the U.S., Canada and Germany, emphasize the written or spoken word. These cultures often have a diverse population and thus rely more on verbal or written communication, taking such communication at face value.
In high-context cultures, especially Eastern cultures like Japan, China and Korea, there is a more homogenous population and communication relies heavily on the context in which it is spoken. Communication is far more nuanced and layered and may be misunderstood or misinterpreted through conflicting nonverbal cues.
How can you make sure your communication with international clients is on point?
There are a number of ways to ensure that you are communicating effectively. Although you may make a mistake here or there — after all, short of an immersion program you probably can’t master every cue — you can keep yourself on a firm footing by following these steps.
Do some basic research
If you know where the client is from, take some time to look up basic information about their country and culture. Business culture, business etiquette and business practices along with the country where the client is from will give you some good basic information.
The U.S. Department of State website will keep you up to date on the latest developments in their country of origin, as will websites and publications geared toward expatriate Americans relocating to or doing business in the client’s country.
Let the client take the lead on social cues
Your client is the expert you need to ensure that you are behaving in a way that’s appropriate for their cultural context. Follow their lead on social cues like handshakes, small talk, as well as the tone and volume of your voice.
Try to mirror their body language as well to make them feel more comfortable. Be observant, and you’ll begin to pick up on subtle differences that you can adopt.
Avoid hand gestures
According to NAR, hand gestures are among the most easily misunderstood types of nonverbal communication. For example, the thumb and forefinger symbol that we interpret as “OK” is interpreted as various types of insults in Brazil, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and other countries.
According to Business Insider, the thumbs up, which many of us make at the conclusion of a successful deal, means something more like “up yours” in several countries across West Africa and the Middle East.
Listen more than you speak
Many real estate professionals are successful in part because of their outgoing, extroverted personalities and gift of gab. Although that may play well for many of your clients, you may need to take it down a notch for some of your international clients.
Listen more, and spend a bit more time asking questions so that you can ensure you’re getting a fuller understanding of their concerns and needs.
Be open to feedback
If the client asks you to do something different or if a colleague who works frequently with international clients gives you feedback, be open to it and take it on board as constructive communication.
Remember, it’s in everyone’s best interest for the client to feel comfortable and understood. Getting stuck in the place of “but that’s just me” or “you know how I am” does nothing to help you move forward or to get the deal done.
You don’t have to memorize long lists of rules to get better at communicating with your international clients. Be open to the process and willing to learn, and you’ll provide them with truly effective service.
Christy Murdock is a Realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant and the owner of Writing Real Estate. She is also the creator of the online course Crafting the Property Description: The Step-by-Step Formula for Reluctant Real Estate Writers. Follow Writing Real Estate on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.