Ask the stupid questions and other tips for international business

Jason Brooks, WSP international director

Understanding cultural differences can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of multinational business. WSP international director Jason Brooks shares his experiences.

They say that variety is the spice of life and after more than 30 years of working around the world, I am convinced that this is true and that we can all learn a lot from each other. With WSP operating in 30 countries, on every continent, cultural differences have a significant impact on how the business goes about delivering projects and working with clients around the world.

"Wearing batik shirts in Asia or a Thobe in the Middle East can often be interpreted as patronising, as well as making the wearer feel uncomfortable."

For example in the USA and Europe it is normal for key issues to be debated in open-forum directly with clients on projects, whereas in the Middle East and Asia, often a much more measured approach is required, with contentious issues more often being addressed away from the main meetings and in a more private manner with leading decision-makers. Awareness of these different approaches can be critical to obtaining consensus and avoiding unnecessary conflict.

We are increasingly assembling teams for major projects drawing upon experts from our different offices around the world. For example, on the HIA Airport City Master Plan project in Qatar, our team has involved specialists from offices in the UK, UAE, Canada and China, as well as inputs from our local business in Qatar. Working together we have developed effective ways of ensuring that all team members are able to make an effective input to the overall project delivery and outcome, irrespective of their individual styles of working.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with some top tips for those of you who, like us, work in a truly global environment.

Recognise and understand the significance of differences

For me, one of the most valuable skills that anyone working internationally can have is the ability to recognise differences and appreciate their significance (or otherwise). Many are just quirks and have little real significance.

A great example of an important difference is appreciating the various‘plate-principles’ around the world when dining with international clients. In England I was brought up to believe that a clean-plate, with no food left over, was the ultimate way of paying respect to a host. Applying this simple well-mannered intent in Wuhan in China on my first visit almost led to my waistline and the client’s bank balance collapsing!  You see, in China, the principle operates slightly differently, with hosts providing food on a continuous basis until their guests can eat no more (and hence leave food on their plates to demonstrate this fact).

A clean-plate implies that the guest is still hungry and that the host has not provided enough (a point of considerable embarrassment, in a country where good hospitality is paramount). The failure to recognise this difference can lead to a situation of never-ending food being delivered and the stereo-typical view that Westerners eat too much being reinforced.

Be prepared to experiment and embrace new experiences

Recognising differences is pointless if you do not understand and respond to the ones that you have identified.  Many of the very worst kind of expatriate workers are very good at recognising differences  only to then ignore or worse still, belittle and challenge them and take a perverse delight in moaning endlessly about them. My own experience is that people around the world really appreciate you trying new ways and things, even if you do not always get every last aspect right. For example, when I lived in Malaysia I learned enough Malay to exchange pleasantries at the start of any meeting and as a result clients were then happy to conduct the main meeting in English to help me. Their attitude to others that made no effort to learn Malay was noticeably different.

That said, it is important to avoid trying to be truly local and always remember that you are a visitor in another culture. The worst examples of getting this wrong can often be seen when it comes to local dress, where wearing batik shirts in Asia or a Thobe in the Middle East can often be interpreted as patronising, as well as making the wearer feel uncomfortable.

Ask the stupid questions

One of the great joys of being in a new culture is the ability to ask the stupid questions about cultural differences that all the locals are expected to know the answers to and are therefore too embarrassed to ask themselves. So in any situation where you are unsure, I would always encourage people to ask questions as this has the dual effect of helping ensure you get things right and also demonstrates your willingness to please.  A good example of this is when I am meeting very senior people for the first-time I always ask them directly how they would like to be addressed. You will be amazed by the range of responses they give which are generally quite informal and they are not normally the ones that their aides proffer in advance.

Keep a sense of humour

By far the most important attribute to overcoming cultural differences in my experience is to retain a sense of humour and learn how to laugh at yourself when you get things wrong. Religious and Royal etiquette aside, most faux pas are normally recoverable and can even become a memorable calling card for people in other countries to remember you by.