What I Learned About Hierarchy And Status When Working Internationally

When working internationally, I’ve noticed some differences in the business culture and standards compared to the United States. It’s important to understand these differences in order to effectively exchange viewpoints and learn from each other.

Meetings in all cultures present some degree of hierarchical difference, as they are unique opportunities for upper level and other management to interact directly with employees. In many businesses, employees communicate with executives primarily via their direct supervisors, so there can be some disconnect between the leaders and meeting attendees.

Combine the hierarchal challenges that come with meetings with the traditional differences across cultures, and you’ll see why its important to recognize these barriers in your preparation in order to properly participate in a meeting.

Characteristics of Meetings in the US

I’ve found that in the United States, there is a significantly less degree of formality than there is in the rest of the world. Professionals communicate primarily on a first name basis, rather than associating people with their job title or level of education.

Another common informality of meetings in the US has to do with seating arrangements. It is assumed that the leader of the meeting would sit at the head of the table, but in the United States the seating positions can change depending on the situation. Sometimes the leader may sit in the middle of the group to alleviate the hierarchal distance and to increase the level of comfort across ranks in an organization.

Formality is an important aspect of meetings across the world, and oftentimes its level of importance varies from country to country. In the United States, it carries a lower degree of importance compared to many other cultures across the world.

Characteristics of Meetings Abroad

As mentioned above, the decorum at business meetings is a greater factor in many countries outside the US. My readers know from my previous article that there are noteworthy differences in the style and structure when giving presentations abroad. In addition to the differences I learned while presenting to a board in Germany, I learned that China is a nation where a great deal of importance is placed upon formality as well.

While attending meetings in China, it is a cultural norm to exchange business cards printed in both English and Chinese if possible. To begin meetings, Chinese business protocol is for the senior guest to lead the guests into the room and accept the greeting from the Chinese host.

Seating arrangements also follow protocol: the senior guest is typically seated directly next to the senior host, and the rest of the guests typically sit opposite the host participants. Sessions begin with a brief welcome statement and introduction before engaging in unstructured exchanges of information.

Importance of Understanding Formality Standards Abroad

I have found that understanding and adhering to these standards that differ from those in the US is a significant issue that can aid in the meeting’s usefulness. Failing to adhere to cultural norms and practices in meetings can impair the host’s trust in you. And as my regular readers know from Paul McCartney, trust goes a long way.

Despite English being the standard for international business, it is important to remember that for many foreign business people it is a second language.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

To the extent possible, communicating in a foreigner’s native tongue can help establish trust and dismantle any barriers that exist due to the nature of cultural differences.

As you know from my previous article “How to Find the Right CFO for Your Expansion Abroad,” simple phrases like ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ or even learning the foreign word for industry specific terms can help establish trust upfront before even discussing details of the meeting.

Preparing for International Hierarchy Obstacles

In order to best prepare for meetings in a new country for the first time, I would recommend a brief cultural training session for the participants.

Cultural training will help to answer any questions your team may have about how to decrease hierarchal distance respectfully and to the standard of the host country.

The session can be done at the same time as the standard meeting preparation and should address any cultural issues you may encounter. Standards can vary on a country-by-country basis for things like seating arrangements, verbal feedback, and timeliness to name a few.

For example, it is extremely important to be early or at the least on time for meetings in Australia. You may still be able to have a successful meeting in the US if you are 5 minutes late, but in Australia you could give off the perception of being rude or disorderly to the hosts. Read “15 International Business Customs That Could Make or Break a Deal” for more tips on international formalities.

When preparing for an international business trip, it is useful to remember tip #5 from “7 Bits of Advice That I Am Grateful For As A CFO”: Surround yourself with great advisors and hire people smarter than yourself.

If you are unsure of the cultural norms in the country you are heading to next month, the easiest way to learn is to simply ask someone on your team who has been there before.

Additional Resources

• China: Punctuality is expected in meetings. (Business America)

• Erin Nyquist: When the Boss Came to the Meeting…: Hierarchical Distance and Emotional Labor in Workplace Meetings (Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research)

• Myriam Siftar: How to Have A Successful Meeting Overseas (http://www.dvirc.org/blog/successful-meeting-overseas/)

• Nancy Friedman: Communication (Business Source Premier)

• Pamela Rogerson-Revell: Participation And Performance In International Business Meetings (Sciencedirect.com)

• Susan Adams: How to Run A Meeting (Forbes.com)