Where Do You Fall?

These days you are probably working with at least one person whose background is very different from yours.  They may act differently, make different assumptions, and maybe even make you uncomfortable. By realizing that there is a range acceptable behaviors, and learning where you prefer to be within that range, you can help yourself manage your expectations and work productively across cultural boundaries.

Communication Styles

Do you prefer to be loud and direct, or are you more soft-spoken and deferential?  Do you address every member of a team, or only negotiate with the senior person?  Do you consider feelings when making decisions, or only objective facts?  In many cultures, people are loath to say “no”, or sometimes even to use negative language.   For example, you need to know if your boss’ comment that you “think some more about that idea” means you should keep developing it, or that it’s a bad idea and you should move on to something else .  Sometimes this means asking for specific clarification, maybe even pushing for it, other times it means couching your own responses in terms that will make it more palatable for the other person.


How important is punctuality and planning?  In some cultures schedules are inviolate, requiring precise punctuality and significant advance planning.  In others, meeting times are only a suggestion, and arriving hours late is perfectly acceptable.  It’s best to begin in a new are by always being punctual, and relax later as local custom allows.

Timelines also differ. English-speaking people will put the past on the left, Arabic-speaking people on the right, and Mandarin-speakers put it on the bottom.  When you’re creating graphics for a diverse audience, make sure labels are clear so everyone can follow.


When you meet a new group, do you assume the person in charge is the oldest (most experienced), male, most educated, best dressed…..It may be just the opposite.  Don’t make assumptions about relative ranking based on ideas from your own background.  Treat everyone with respect – which includes using their title and surname until invited to do otherwise.

Similarly with clothing – if you’re not sure what to wear, err on the side of formality.

Mixing Business With Pleasure

Do you prefer to get right down to work and keep business relationships professional, or do you want to make friends with your co-workers?  In some cultures negotiations are all about business, in others a significant amount of socializing between the parties is expected before business begins.  And in some cultures, negotiations continue even after the contract is signed. Knowing what is standard, and thus expected, in that culture can help avoid surprises.

In the end, culture is not just geographic.  No matter where you are from or where you are working, your style will differ from your colleagues in many ways, sometimes to the point where one or more people are uncomfortable. Realizing that there are many ways to get to the same endpoint, and asking for clarification when needed, can help you reach a middle ground where both parties are comfortable, and you can then focus on the work at hand.


Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.

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