By Ed Moehlenkamp
Clients often ask why I am so passionate about providing MMCo’s Going Global International training and development services. My attraction comes from observing first-hand how our cross-cultural coaching and consulting impacts multi-national work groups both here in the US and around the globe. What stands out are two actual “bookend experiences” – one early on in my career, and one just recently.
My first international assignment was in Hong Kong 25 years ago, facilitating a communication skills seminar for 20 senior banking officers from a local organization, all of whom were Asian executives. Naturally, I was quite excited about this opportunity! I enthusiastically began my presentation, keeping an eye on the audience to gauge their understanding and receptivity. Although all eyes were politely focused on me, I noticed their faces seemed totally unexpressive, downright impassive! Determined to reach these individuals, I emoted more, using bigger gestures and a louder voice. Yet still – no change in their facial expressions or level of engagement.
At our scheduled break, the firm’s local HR representative pulled me aside and quietly said, “Ed, your enthusiasm is frightening them! As big and loud as your style is, it’s impossible for them to relate to you or join in.”
When we reconvened, I dialed my expressiveness down and took a more deliberate pace. Happily, the group began to comment, ask questions, and engage! Not because they had changed, but because I’d adjusted my behavior and presentation style.
Since then, I’ve learned that in communication style and behavior, Asian and American cultural preferences are on the opposite ends of the Expressiveness scale. In the United States, we tend to value open demonstration of how a presenter feels about a topic — we appreciate their passion. In contrast, Asian cultures value subtlety and consider it unproductive to introduce emotions into a communication. Those unemotive countenances of my Hong Kong clients were exactly appropriate to their culture, and my highly animated style was not! I’m grateful that I learned the importance of cultural awareness and making these adjustments early on in my career!
Now fast forward to my recent experience on the other side of the bookend. This time my consulting assignment was to coach a small group of managers for formal presentations at their company’s annual conference. They all worked at US locations, but several were not native to the US and were adjusting to stateside styles and expectations.
One woman in the group was from the UK, very knowledgeable and well-regarded, but inexperienced in front of large groups. I could see that her petite stature, demure, soft-spoken style and tendency to use small physical gestures (“constrained” by American standards) would require major amplification for the big stage. As she and I reviewed a video of her presentation rehearsal, I asked, “Looking at the video as objectively as you can, what comments do you have about your presentation?” Without hesitation she replied, “Oh! I look so timid!”
Since she’d now opened the door to change, I emphasized that in US business settings, a speaker’s animated presentation style is vitally important to the audience. I told her, “Your physical expressiveness is how US audiences see your passion and stay engaged!” She immediately grasped that heightening her vocal expression and body language were key to reaching her audience, and that’s what we worked on together. Later I heard she’d come alive during her conference presentation!
From a host of assignments like these, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for cross-cultural coaching from multiple perspectives. By observing the rewards of learning to flex one’s accustomed style to better connect with others, I’m thrilled to be working with our client’s leaders to improve their multi-cultural business effectiveness.
If you’d like to leave a comment here about your own learning experiences in multi-cultural settings, our Going Global team would love to hear from you!