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Missing social cues: three cultural blunders

Being aware of your cultural surroundings when away from home or doing business with someone from another culture can be tough, but here are some tips to raise your awareness.



international business culture

international business culture

A look at three blunders with the seamstress, the translator, and me

Picture it: me – an English speaker, a friend who speaks English and Malayalam, her mother who speaks Malayalam and Hindi, a seamstress who only speaks Hindi. While trying to get a blouse stitched (the shirt thing-y that goes under a sari), I had a chuckle to myself as I was in the position of so many of my clients. For once, I was the one not “in the know.” I took this rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a situation in which I was the cause of the cultural blunders.

Blunder #1

I removed my shoes AFTER entering the home.

While I know shoes are never worn in most Indian and Indian-American homes, I allowed my surroundings to cloud my awareness. It’s easy to remember the cultural cues when you are living in that culture, but it’s completely another to straddle the line of “here” and “there.” One tip is to do what I call a quick “culture check.”

If I know I have a meeting with someone from another country, I try to remind myself of the most important greetings. If I’m engaging with a new culture with which I have limited experience, I watch others around me. Graciously offer for someone else to speak or act first. Not only do you seem meek and nice, you also gain the added advantage of “going second.” Once inside the home, I quickly kicked off my shoes and did a quick “Namaste, Auntie*!” to the seamstress. Crisis averted.

Blunder #2:

I didn’t match the seamstresses vocal tone.

When the seamstress wanted me to try on the blouse, I picked up on the social cue because she was handing it to me and pointing to a door off around the corner. But when I came out all smiles, excited that it fit, I was confused. She frowned, yelled and shook her head “no”. To be quite honest, I thought she was yelling at me!

After a quick mental check (blouse on correctly: check, pants zipped: check, everything in order: good to go), I had to ask my translator “Did I do something wrong?” I quickly discovered, much like Asian culture, craftsmanship is prided but the crafter is often modest and self-deprecating. I missed the cue to fawn over the blouse and reassure her just how perfect it was. Once I realized this blunder, I raised my voice and prided her in my very broken Hindi.

Blunder #3:

I tried to pay for all services before the job was completed.

I was quite pleased with the first blouse and had two more that needed to be made. When the topic of payment was broached, I offered to pay for the completed blouse and the two that she had yet to start. Thinking this a good idea, I handed the seamstress all of the money. She counted it, looked confused and gave me back the amount for the two blouses she would soon start. Imagine my surprise when the translator asked me with an apologetic look “Do you mind paying next time, when they are completed?” Of course not.

Afterward, I had the chance to ask why she didn’t want the money in advance. Again, from my American point of view, payment in advance is a plus. And even without an iron-clad contract, I was confident that the work would be done well. Most companies urge you to close sales early, get contracts signed as soon as possible so you can begin billing! My translator explained the importance of me being satisfied. The seamstress only wanted me to pay if and when I was happy with the finished product. Talk about customer service!

The takeaways

(1) Even in America, there are opportunities to be culturally savvy. Take a trip to a local ethnic grocer or cultural event for a complimentary lesson on cultural understanding.

(2) While we can’t always put ourselves in another culture’s shoes, we can take a moment to think about alternate possibilities. Consider alternate scenarios and how they would play out.

(3) Don’t mistake yelling for anger. Many cultures (African, Middle Eastern and Indian) speak with raised voice in intimate settings.

*Polite way to address someone of Indian descent who is older (Auntie/Uncle)

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. LucerneExec

    June 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    @kwri great tweet! Love to get tips!

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Business News

Why a well-crafted rejection email can save your brand, and your time

(BUSINESS NEWS) Job hunting is exhausting on both sides, and rejection sucks, but crafting a genuine, helpful rejection email can help ease the process for everyone.



Woman sitting at computer with fingers steepled, awaiting a rejection email or any response from HR at all.

Nobody likes to hear “no” for an answer when applying for jobs. But even fewer people like to be left in the dark, wondering what happened.

On the employer side, taking on a new hire is a time-consuming process. And like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get when you put out ads for a position. So once you find the right person for the role, it’s tempting to move along without further ado.

Benn Rosales, the CEO and co-founder of American Genius, offers an example of why that is a very bad call.

Imagine a hypothetical candidate for a job opening at Coca Cola – someone who’s particularly interested in the job, because they grew up as a big Coke fan. If they get no response to their application at all, despite being qualified and sending follow-up emails, their personal opinion of the brand is sure to sour.

“Do you know how much effort and dollars advertising and marketing spent to make [them] a fan over all of those years, and this is how it ends?” Rosales explains. This person has come away from their experience thinking “Bleep you, I’ll have tea.”

To avoid this issue, crafting a warm and helpful rejection email is the perfect place to start. If you need inspiration, the hiring consultants at Dover recently compiled a list of 36 top-quality rejection emails, taken from companies that know how to say “no” gracefully: Apple, Facebook, Google, NPR, and more.

Here’s a few takeaways from that list to keep in mind when constructing a rejection email of your own…

Include details about their resume to show they were duly considered. This shows candidates that their time, interests, and experience are all valued, particularly with candidates who came close to making the cut or have a lot of future promise.

Keep their information on file, and let them know this rejection only means “not right now.” That way, next time you need to make a hire, you will have a handy list of people to call who you know have an interest in working for you and relevant skills.

Provide some feedback, such as common reasons why applicants may not succeed in your particular application process.

And be nice! A lack of courtesy can ruin a person’s impression of your brand, whether they are a customer or not. Keep in mind, that impression can be blasted on social media as well. If your rejections are alienating, you’re sabotaging your business.

Any good business owner knows how much the details matter.

Incorporating an empathetic rejection process is an often-overlooked opportunity to humanize your business and build a positive relationship with your community, particularly when impersonal online applications have become the norm.

And if nothing else, this simple courtesy will prevent your inbox from filling up with circle-backs and follow-up emails once you’ve made your decision.

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Business News

Are Gen Z more fickle in their shopping, or do brands just need to keep up?

(BUSINESS NEWS) As the world keep changing, brands and businesses have to change along with it. Some say Gen Z is fickle, but others say it is the nature of change.



Gen Z woman shopping outside on a laptop.

We all know that if you stop adapting to the world around you, you’re going to be left behind. A recently published article decided to point out that the “fickle” Gen Z generation are liable to leave a poor digitally run site and never return. Now of course we’ve got some statistics here… They did do some kind of due diligence.

This generation, whose life has been online from almost day one, puts high stakes on their experiences online. It is how they interact with the world. It’s keyed into their self-worth and their livelihoods, for some. You want to sell online, get your shit together.

They have little to no tolerance for anything untoward. 80% of Gen Zers reported that they are willing to try new brands since the pandemic. Brand loyalty, based on in-person interaction, is almost a thing of the past. When brands are moved from around the world at the touch of your fingertips there’s nothing to stop you. If a company screws up an order, or doesn’t get back to you? Why should you stick with them? When it comes to these issues, 38% of Gen Zers say they only give a brand 1 second chance to fix things. Three-quarters of the surveyed responded saying that they’ll gladly find another retailer if the store is just out of stock.

This study goes even further though and discusses not just those interactions but also the platforms themselves. If a website isn’t easy to navigate, why should I use it? Why should I spend my time when I can flit to another and get exactly what I need instead of getting frustrated? There isn’t a single company in the world that shouldn’t take their webpage development seriously. It’s the new face of their company and brand. How they show that face is what will determine if they are a Rembrandt or a toddlers noodle art.

The new age of online shopping has been blasted into the atmosphere by the pandemic. Online shopping has boosted far and above expected numbers for obvious reasons. When the majority of your populace is told to stay home. What else are they going to do? Brands that have been around for decades have gone out of business because they didn’t change to an online format either. Keep moving forward.

Now as a side note here, as someone who falls only just outside the Gen Z zone the articles description of fickle is pompous. The stories I’ve heard of baby boomers getting waiters fired, or boycotting stores because of a certain shopkeeper are just as fickle and pointed. Nothing has changed in the people, just how they interact with the world. Trying to single out a single generation based on how the world has changed is a shallow view of the world.

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Business News

Chasing Clubhouse success? How the audio chat room trend affects products

(BUSINESS NEWS) It is inevitable that when a new successful trend comes along, other companies will try to make lightning strike twice. Will the audio chat room catch on?



Smiling woman seated in dark room illuminated by lamp and phone light, participating in audio chat room.

Businesses are always about the hot new thing. People are the always looking for the easiest dollar with the least amount of effort these days. It tends to lead to products that are shoddy and horribly maintained with the least amount of flexibility in pleasing their customers. However, you also have to look at the customer base for this as well. You follow where the money is because that’s where its being spent. It’s like a merry-go-round, constantly chasing the next thing. And the latest of these is the audio chat room.

During the pandemic the entire world saw an eruption of social audio investments. Silicon Valley has gone crazy with this new endeavor. On the 18th of April this year, Clubhouse said it closed on some new funding, which was valued at $4 billion for a live audio app. This thing is still in beta without a single penny of revenue!

The list of other companies who have pursued new audio suites (either through purchase or creation) include:

  • Facebook
  • Spotify
  • Twitter
  • Discord
  • Apple

This whole new audio fad is still in its infancy. These social media and tech giants are all jumping headlong into it with who knows how much forethought. A number of them have their own issues to deal with, but they’ve put things aside to try and grab these audio chat room coattails that are running by. It’s a mix of feelings about the situation honestly. They are trying to survive and keep their customers.

If a competitor creates this new capability and they stay stagnant then they lose customers. If they do this however without dealing with their current issues then they could also lose people. It’s an interesting catch 22 for people out there. Which group do you fall in? Are you antsy for a new toy or are you waiting for one of these lovely sites to fix a problem? It’s another day in capitalism.

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