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A Conversation with Cross-Cultural Communication Expert Sophie Lechner

Alexis Cheney, Project Manager, ChoYou; WWPR Member

As WWPR members may remember from my last column, “Communicating Across Cultures: Bridging the Gap Between French and American Communication Styles,” I moved to Paris from Washington, D.C. in October 2018 due to my pure love of the city and French language. I currently work as a Project Manager within a French marketing and events agency.

Since Washington, D.C. bustles with international organisations, global PR agencies, and multinational companies, it is imperative that PR professionals understand how to conduct business with individuals from foreign countries and cultures. I spoke with the Founder and CEO of Global Commerce Education, Inc. (“GCE, Inc.), Sophie Lechner, to understand how to best professionally communicate with individuals from other cultures and how to avoid miscommunications.

Lechner created GCE, Inc. to enable companies to develop the appropriate strategy for entering their product or service into foreign markets. GCE, Inc. teaches its clients about the cultural nuances of the countries whose markets their clients seek to enter. As the daughter of a French mother and a Pakistani father who has over 25 years of professional experience leading dozens of teams at international companies such as British Petroleum, Pfizer, and Bayer, Lechner is an expert on cross-cultural communication.

Lechner explains that some Americans – depending on where they grew up  – may not have had the privilege of interacting with individuals from other countries and countries. In effect, they sometimes are not even aware of the existence of cultural differences when they meet foreigners. She says, “Culture difference can be a particularly complicated obstacle due to its invisibility.”  Therefore, it is necessary to bear in mind when conversing with someone from a different culture, that a misunderstanding may be due to a cultural difference as opposed to solely a disagreement.

Here are her tips on conducting business across cultures:

1. Acknowledge that cultural differences exist between people.

Lechner explains that some Americans – depending on where they grew up  – may not have had the privilege of interacting with individuals from other countries and countries. In effect, they sometimes are not even aware of the existence of cultural differences when they meet foreigners. She says, “Culture difference can be a particularly complicated obstacle due to its invisibility.”  Therefore, it is necessary to bear in mind when conversing with someone from a different culture, that a misunderstanding may be due to a cultural difference as opposed to solely a disagreement.

 

2. Be humble.

Lechner notes that a pitfall when working in a foreign country is assuming that the methods of conducting business in one’s home country are better than those within a foreign country. Whereas in the U.S., it is common to circulate a meeting agenda prior to a meeting, to then follow the agenda to a T, and lastly to walk away from the meeting with clearly defined to-dos, in France, meetings often meander from one topic to another in a way that can feel disorganized to Americans. Yet, Lechner notes, such French meeting format can help participants to understand how topics fit into the company’s broader goals. Lechner says one must remember that the American way of running meetings is not necessarily better than the French way; they simply serve different purposes. As such, one must be open to changing one’s methods when working with foreigners or in a foreign country.

3. Familiarize yourself with the history, politics, and culture of a country.

Lechner explains that the history of a country plays into the mindset of its inhabitants. In France, for example, 17th century French philosopher René Descartes continues to impact how French people tackle problems. Since the Cartesian (i.e. relating to Descartes) way of thinking encourages looking at topics as a system, it is no wonder that French meeting facilitators allow meeting topics to weave from one another so as to shed light on the whole business. In fact, most French students learn about the Cartesian way of thinking (philosophy, after all, is a mandatory subject in high school) so Descartes continues to have a large influence on French mentality. Understanding major cultural references (such as Descartes for the French) helps individuals who conduct business in a foreign country to appreciate how foreigners solve problems and how those foreigners may expect them to approach problems as well.

4. Find a cross-cultural mentor.

If one plans to conduct business in a foreign country, Lechner strongly recommends that she meet regularly with a cross-cultural mentor. Such mentor should be someone who is native to the foreign country or has lived there for an extended period of time and understands its nuances. Lechner explains that body language may differ from one country to another. She explains that Japanese people nod their heads in conversation to convey to their interlocutor that they are actively listening. She notes that foreigners should refrain from assuming that such nod signals agreement. Meeting with a cross-cultural mentor who is aware of such differences in body language would help individuals to avoid serious miscommunications or assist them in parsing out miscommunications that have occured due to false assumptions.

5. Avoid making assumptions.

Speaking of assumptions, Lechner reminds us to turn them off! She recounts a situation in which she mediated a Skype call between an American team that pitched a service to a French team. After the call, both teams spoke to Lechner individually and conveyed  to her their reactions. The Americans expressed concern that they would not receive the contract from the French team. Conversely, the French team indicated enthusiasm to begin working with the Americans. It turns out that the Americans had misinterpreted the French team’s curiosity and ensuing questions as skepticism and even a rejection of their services. Lechner notes that American communication style can be more direct and enthusiastic than that of the French, which – by contrast – can be more subdued. When French people call into question an idea, it does not necessarily mean that they disagree with it. In effect, Lechner reminds us to identify our assumptions (i.e. the assumption that when one poses a challenging question about an idea it means that one rejects the idea) and – if appropriate – to even vocalize assumptions when making them.

Although Lechner provides advice for those working in international contexts or with internationals, she also acknowledges that the definition of “foreign culture” is broad and reminds us that separate industries may feel like foreign cultures. Therefore, whether working with someone from a different country or a client within a foreign industry, following Lechner’s tips will help you to navigate foreign environments with grace.