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Monthly career tip: Customs and cultures March 29, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Careers.


I have been traveling to the Middle East a lot lately. The differences in attitudes and ways of thinking are dramatic. It reminds me that anyone doing science today must be aware of the issues when dealing with people of other cultures. There are cultural differences that are based on religious beliefs and so they extend over many nations or areas. At a minimum recognizing these makes professional interactions easier. Respecting them makes this even better and opens the door to a better mutual interaction.


There are two situations that require similar, yet different, attitudes and awareness, visiting and hosting. When you travel to another nation, you should learn some of the customs and taboos beforehand. When you host, you must know many of these and you must also make the guests feel more comfortable in an alien setting.


Other things are do to customs and attitudes. These often involve the protocols of interacting and the courtesies, the ways expected in politeness. For example, the leader, boss, most senior person in a group of Japanese scientists will be the one the others defer to and follow the lead of. Individual social behavior in that culture is not as pronounced as in the US or Europe. The senior person is the first one introduced by whoever is making the introductions. He or she is also the one who might be asked to introduce those in that group if that is necessary.


US culture is very casual. So things like greeting, introductions, closing interactions (the goodbyes) are not emphasized as much as in most cultures and are not formalized at all. Professional titles are not obligatory. Roles of status are often ignored. This is not how most cultures are.


Even in situations where face-to-face meetings do not happen, such as teleconference phone calls or the exchange of emails, some cultures have usual practices. A polite greeting is often expected and even some non-business conversation about health or family should occur if the person (or people) is someone you have known for a while. The same is expected in the closing. Saying goodbye is a formality that is always done. In some cultures, visitors give gifts to the host in thanks, while in others the hosts give gifts as mementos.


Business cards and their exchange are much more important in business in the Middle East, south Asia, and eastern Asia. Their offering and acceptance so a respect and friendliness that most from the US and Europe do not comprehend.


In most cultures outside of the US titles, such as doctor or professor, are often expect as part of the name. Last names are used. The person will let people know if using her or his first name is allowable. Thus, it is Professor Smith or Doctor Jones (or even Professor Doctor Smith if both titles apply if it involves those from certain European nations).


These cultural aspects can be even more important in the common situation where lunch or dinner is part of the overall business meeting. Even when this is away from the workplace and there is only moderate talk of business, the situation rarely calls for the relaxed mood most Americans have in their daily lives or even that of the somewhat more formal attitudes among Europeans. Status is still important (in many cultures there is no democracy in social situations).


When you host a meal, you must remember that much of the food you see on the menu is not something your guests may be familiar with. If you know where you will be going before your guests arrive, you might match their cuisine or dietary requirements with items on the menu. The restaurant may be able to help you. Then you can discuss these items with your guests and make suggestions. One sign that this is an issue is if your guests parrot your order or those of your companions. They are ordering what you have because it does not make them look unsure or unaware – so your order might need to be something you like that your guests ought to also like.


After a visit, it is common courtesy to send a thank you to your host or visitor. In some cultures this is not just nice, it is the expected behavior.



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