Once upon a time, there was an enterprising American Mike, who was considered the rising star of the global retail furniture company he was working for. As a mark of appreciation for his exceptional talent, he was entrusted with the huge responsibility of launching the company’s flagship DIY furniture line in Korea. Sadly, due to the pandemic he could not move to Korea for this assignment, and had to work remotely. But he couldn’t wait for travel to resume! In his initial briefing call, his American boss introduced him to the entire Korean team of 5, but the call wasn’t anything that Mike expected it to be. The air of formality and awkwardness was reigning the entire call, which made him feel really uncomfortable.

So Mike decided that in his next call, he will break these communication barriers and be that fun, cool colleague that everyone in America seems to love!

The Expatriate Saga Begins

It was Friday evening and Mike thought that just like him, his Korean colleagues might be waiting to get started with their weekend. So to create that relaxed vibe, he put on his favourite Friday polo t-shirt and joined the call at sharp 16:00 to present his advertising pitch. His team in America had spent days working on it and his American colleagues had already given amazing reviews on it. He was really excited to present it to his Korean colleagues.

But his cool polo t-shirt was countered by prim and proper corporate suits. Nervous, he resorted to small talk typical in American culture. His enthusiastic talk about the ongoing Tokyo Olympic games was met by confused smiles, so he decided to harp onto his meticulously prepared pitch.

He presented the idea of pitching DIY furniture to elder population of Korea, through an old mother who had long been waiting for her son to visit her and fix the broken mirror of her dressing table. Delayed further by the lockdown, the old mother is perturbed by the loneliness of not being able to see anyone during the pandemic, nor being able to see herself because of the broken mirror. So after seeing a TV commercial, she downloads the company app and orders a DIY dressing table for herself, sets it up on her own and looks at her in it with satisfaction.

Mike got this idea from his mother, who had recently shared with him a video of her setting up a DIY bookcase that she had ordered for herself to pursue her writing dreams during this lockdown. To him, this symbolised the idea of self love irrespective of age, gender or lockdowns. It was a beautiful idea as per his American colleagues, who felt that it symbolizes independence.

Excited, he waited for reactions from his Korean colleagues, but there wasn’t so much of a nod. In his experience, the younger colleagues generally have interesting perspectives to share, so he encouraged the younger Korean colleagues to share their opinions, but that just added to the awkwardness on the call. Nervous, he cracked a joke about him yapping about work on a Friday evening and spoiling everyone’s fun.

After the call he cracked open a can of beer and sat in front of the TV to watch the Olympics but he felt uncomfortable with how the call went. His fears were confirmed next week, when that awkward silence extended into many awkward conversations and then misunderstood conversations.

Mike did everything to extend the friendly, cooperative environment that he would have loved working in. So what really went wrong?

Meet (Miss)Communication

Mike really did everything he thought was right. His preparations were spot on, as per the Golden Rule of Communication, which means ‘communicate with others, the way we want to be communicated with’. But we forget that our communications and expectations are shaped by a history, culture, society and upbringing unique just to us. This becomes all the more important in a cross cultural setup, where the degree of shared experiences, thought processes and culture is pretty much zero.

Hence, the rule that we should all strive to abide by in cross-cultural communications is the ‘Platinum Rule’, which emphasises on ‘communicating with others, the way they want to be communicated with’.

If Mike had applied the Platinum rule and researched more on Korean working culture and society, he might have been able to create much more effective work relations and maybe a better advertising pitch too!

Let’s see how applying the Platinum Rule can help Mike assess what went wrong

  1. The concept of face is very important in Korean society. Dressing appropriately for occasions, especially corporate meetings is a significant factor of first impressions. That polo t-shirt might have given off the impression that Mike was just not serious about that meeting
  2. Koreans are not big on small talk. Their meetings are generally formal and agenda driven. Specially initiating a conversation on the much politicised Tokyo Olympics signifies lack of interest or ignorance about Koreans’ issues
  3. Mike’s advertising pitch certainly might be a winner for the American audience epitomising the concept of individuality. But for a collectivist Korean society, instead of symbolising self love, this pitch might convey lack of care by a son or shirking away of his responsibilities towards his mother
  4. Another faux pas was encouraging juniors to voice their opinions in front of their seniors. Korean work culture is extremely hierarchical (high power distance) unlike American culture. Interjecting seniors is considered a sign of disrespect and Mike inadvertently was encouraging it
  5. And the final nail in the coffin was when Mike unknowingly conveyed that their lack of participation was because they were waiting for the call to end since it was Friday evening. Koreans rank quite high on ‘indirectness’ of communication, unlike America. To ask for immediate feedback is deliberately putting them on a spot that makes them uncomfortable

So, despite his best intentions, positive attitude, tremendous talent, proven expertise and a widely accepted amiable personality, Mike wasn’t able to strike a chord with his Korean colleagues, nor could the Korean colleagues win Mike’s heart for a cordial working relationship. Theoretically, no one was at fault. Everyone was putting their best foot forward and being their most hospitable selves as would have been expected in their respective countries. But they failed to consider the expectations of the other side of this conversation, thereby leading to misscommunication and many missed conversations that could otherwise have led to really fruitful business prospects.

Ignoring Cross Cultural Understanding Is Costly

We often overlook cross cultural understanding for our expatriate workforce, while being so occupied with immigration and compliance hassles. But ignoring it can render all the time, money and effort invested in expatriate assignments useless. The remote working environment brought on by the pandemic has made this even more pronounced. Now you can not even have those friendly pub crawls or hang out with your expatriate colleagues to get to know them better.

A Worthy Investment!

So, in the current scenario, investment in cross-cultural understanding would surely rank as one of the most profitable decisions you can make to ensure successful overseas interactions and productive assignments for your expatriate colleagues.