agreement Communicating across cultures

Today's leaders need an international lens, and an ability to communicate effectively across cultures and languages.

Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent most of that time in international sales, providing sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. I asked Ron about communicating effectively in an international setting.

You have a long history in international management. How long have you worked internationally?

I’m an American that has lived well over half my life in Japan, 44 years as of next March (2024).

In California, I studied business and became interested in international business (graduated in 1972). With the trade between Japan and California, I started studying Japanese. That led me to Japan in 1976. In my first year in Japan, I taught English to business people. A year later, I attended graduate school in international business.

I graduated in 1980 and soon started working for Isuzu Motors. Over many of the 21 years in that company, I gave vehicle sales seminars mostly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and some European countries.

I left Isuzu in 2021 and joined Unika Company Limited. My job was to develop overseas sales markets by presenting at exhibitions. I established distributors mostly in Europe and throughout the United States through those exhibitions.

I retired from Unika in 2018. Currently, I write articles for The Open Organization, give presentations on my travels and give speeches on global business development.

I have worked internationally all those years in Japan and to this day.

International communication certainly requires having conversations in another language. How do you manage this?

Giving sales seminars, I have had interpretation (verbal) and translation (written) in Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Turkish, Hebrew and Arabic. Sometimes, I only used interpreters along with original English-written training manuals.

My manuals used a lot of graphs, charts, cartoons and other images as much as possible, as in many cases the education of the sales people was not very high. Therefore, even in their native language, reading skills were quite low. When written translation is required in the training manual, I demanded the layout stay the same and only the text translated into the required language.

Bear in mind, I was involved in sales training. Therefore, I was teaching a skill (active knowledge) which is different from direct education (passive understanding). In order to be successful, I had to cover the same material in different ways at least three times. I presented the features of a vehicle in the seminar room. Then, we went out to the vehicle, and I presented the same features as if I was a salesman and the group were my customers wanting to buy the vehicle. After that, I set up a role playing contest where six participants gave presentations to the group. With that repetition, the group learned not only what the features were but also how to present the vehicle to their customers. I had role playing for finding customers, meeting customers, finding out what customers wanted and negotiating price and terms of payment as well.

In Japan, I just speak directly in Japanese. I write Japanese as well, but my speaking is far better than my Japanese writing ability. Unusually, I have my written Japanese edited before distributing it to the targeted reader.

I only used translators when giving sales seminars. Sometimes the Isuzu Sales Department hired the translator but mostly the local dealership/distributor/assembler did the hiring or used their own staff. I totally relied on others when translation was needed.

International communication also requires paying attention to culture. Do you use the "low context" and "high context" model - where Japan is typically a high context culture and Germany is a classic low context country?

In general, I think that translation material content and reader education levels are far more important factors when determining “low context” and “high context” information. How specialized and educated the readers are will most likely determine the context level. Using technical terms can confuse non-technical people in any culture. I tend to favor flow-charts, graphs or other illustrations over straight text wherever possible. They can better communicate across cultures, specialties and education levels.

Regarding sales training, I answered that above. Currently, I’m working with The Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the US all in English. That is for The Open Organization project I mentioned above.

I’m working in both Japanese and English for Japan related speaking projects.

Overall, I would guess my translation related projects have been closer to the “low context” level (the sales training material).

You mentioned Japan being “high context” above, but in many cases, cartoons and “manga” are heavily used in education and advertising. Interestingly on the other hand, when watching Japanese TV, written text is often pasted at the bottom of the screen.

What tips for cultural interaction do you recommend for people who are working across countries/cultures? For example: should folks learn a phrase or two for their meeting, or should they bring small gifts, or wear a certain color?

My first recommendation is to determine if you want to provide a skill or just knowledge. If it is a skill, consider cutting the content down and increase repetition. Also, develop exercises for them to practice, not just giving presentations or offering articles for them to read.

Secondly, I would consider increasing graphs, tables and illustrations to cut through language concerns.

I have found using a few local phrases could break the ice, but I haven’t found them that important. More important is learning in advance why those people are there and what they want to gain in the meeting. Knowing that will help you prepare the material they most need. About gifts, clothing or colors, beforehand I would ask a local representative what would be most appropriate to make a good first impression. I had participation giveaways for my seminars and prizes for presentation contest winners.

Regarding dress, what you want to do is impress them enough, so they will respect what you have to say, but be casual enough to relax the group, so they will speak openly. I have over dressed in a suit and tie many times. So, I took my jacket and tie off right in front of them to relax the group. Sometimes, I would even roll up my sleeves. Furthermore, I always stood up when presenting to keep the group’s attention.

I noticed that good 2-way discussions can be achieved with groups of up to 20 people. Above that leads to a formal 1-way presentation, and possible Q and A after the presentation about the content.

I think the biggest pitfall is making assumptions of things you personally think are clearly obvious. In other cultures with different experiences and environments, things might not be that obvious and must be explained in more detail. Also, continually confirming understanding as to what was said should be deliberately and regularly done. I often asked: “What do you think about…?” or “What are you doing now and how does it compare with what I’m recommending?”

In your experience, what tips would you recommend to a new leader who is doing their first in-person meeting with a person from another culture?

I would recommend confirming what the group wants to achieve by attending the meeting. For me in Isuzu Motors, it was mostly to help people learn a selling process that they could use throughout their professional (and in some cases personal) life.

I would also try to keep the group to less than 20 people.

I would volunteer to write the agenda of the meeting and the minutes afterward. You know your written communication skills, but you don’t know the level of the other party, particularly if English is not their first language. If you let them do those tasks, their English grammar might be fine, but the content will more than likely be thin for both agenda and minutes. I have done this successfully on several occasions as I made sure major concerns were documented.

If you give a presentation to a group or even in a meeting, when you make a proposal or give a comment, notice facial expressions of the participants and ask if you think they are happy, concerned or neutral. Based on what you see don’t prejudge it, just ask follow-up questions to try to confirm that mood as gestures by region are different. From their responses, you can work on solutions and/or suggestions to move forward.

The meeting environment matters. Consider arriving at the location a half day early to review the meeting room, layout of chairs, handout material available in the right quantities, projector set-up, microphone, and so on. Is it quiet and appropriately enclosed?

If the meeting is for a 1-way presentation with Q and A afterward, a classroom seating layout would be fine. If it is more of a 2-way discussion of the material presented, a “U” shaped seating arrangement would be better, so people can talk to and see each other. I used this layout the most, as I hoped for discussion regarding what I was recommending and what was happening in the country itself.

If I could identify the most experienced person in the room, I would redirect questions to that person. I could give general concept answers, but the local person could be far more detailed. Also, he more than likely will be more credible than me. I even let him explain his ideas in the local language. I have experienced this mostly in Spanish, French, Chinese, Turkish, Hebrew and German.

Thanks to Ron for sharing these leadership insights with us. To learn more, also read Ron's interview about international professional communication at our sister website, Technically We Write.