Tag Archives: communication

Getting Hitched? Some International Guidelines…

newly weds - wedding bands

My dad and I were catching up with an old family friend and he was telling the story of how his then-future son-in-law asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  “He took me golfing and didn’t say a word about my daughter.  It was the biggest white elephant in the room ever.  We went the whole day without him saying anything at all relevant to the whole reason we were golfing.  Then as we pulled into my driveway at the end of the whole day,” our friend breaks into a huge smile, “he shows me he’s a good Southern boy and he says, “Jill and I were thinking about getting married.  Do you, uh… do you… I mean… do you think that would be a good idea?”

The awkward suitor was given the go ahead after his stumbling efforts and the incident got a permanent page in family history.  A success story.  But things obviously don’t always go that smoothly.  Most of my American friends probably know someone that dodged family expectations, lavish custom and the accompanying bills and eloped in Vegas.  Some enjoy the notoriety of having done it “my way” regardless of offended relatives and fat Elvis impersonators that will forever mar the $19.99 picture album of their union.

But most people who decide to tie the knot want to do it well.  This is no easy thing, especially if you and your second half are from different cultures.  I am not married so the following are not my tips but rather an assortment of the cross-cultural knot-tying advice I’ve picked up while on the trail:

1) Examine motives: Sorry to start off with something so boring.  It is vital though.  I will never forget the time I was in line for check-in at the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo airport.  In front of me was a very boring looking, potbellied, middle-aged white guy with a stunning local girl. I was about to roll my eyes when the woman reached into the old guy’s back pocket and pulled out a passport.  She proceeded to wave it to her friends who all started jumping in delight at the other end of the security barrier.  Joe may have bagged a beauty, but Juanita snagged a passport.  Avoid the marriage of convenience.  Enough said.

2)  If you are going local, don’t go “loco”. There’s nothing more pathetic than a wannabe.  Cultural sensitivity is great and is absolutely advised, but everyone can spot a desperate bluffer.  There is absolutely no reason that you should walk around in your future spouse’s national costume for days on end just so you can be accepted as “one of them”.  You are different, you are from somewhere else.  Own it.  It’s OK.

3)  Realize that you may never be “good enough”. As much as your future in-laws may like you, there is likely a little part of them that just wishes their son had married one of his own.  This is nothing personal.  Your attempts at Scandinavian midsummer frog dancing are commendable but you will never be mistaken for a Greta.  You will find that everyone, including yourself, harbors some kind of prejudice. Christine Benlafquih, in an article for suite101.com titled “Cross-Cultural Marriage”, makes the point that it helps to find out what some of the commonly held prejudices are in your significant other’s culture. This can prevent nasty surprises farther down the line. Innermost preferences and prejudices aside, your future family will most likely appreciate you and will eventually see you as a person before your nationality.

4)  Talk to others that have done it – Intercultural marriage is never problem free.  It is challenging.  Tamula Drumm, writing for TransitionsAbroad.com, states that although statistically intercultural and interracial marriages have a high rate of failure, many couples make them work. It helps to learn from the success stories of older couples that have had to deal with more cultural disapproval and discrimination but still were able to live happily together.  Ask questions, listen to their stories and learn from their mistakes.

In the end a cross-cultural marriage boils down to the same thing as any other marriage.  Where there is love and a will there is a way.  So relax, enjoy this special time of life and, if all hell breaks lose, there’s always Vegas.

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Bjorn Karlman

Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman

Seduce a Swede – Steps 1-5

mouse trap with cheese and "free cheese" sign.

We’ve all had to endure the heavy-breathing commentary about Swedish women, their striking blond hair, long limbs and  “clothing optional” approach to life in general.  Swedish women are characterized by global media and entertainment as sexually liberated, touchingly naive blond goddesses. Swedish men on the other hand, almost always look goofy in movies and seem only to have two names: Sven and Bjorn.  As Bjorn happens to be my first name, I thought it appropriate to lay down a few helpful steps for anyone who might be looking to snare a viking for themselves.

For step one, let the following sink in: “Dating” is not big in Swedish culture.  There isn’t even a real Swedish name for it.  You can “dejta” or “gå på dejt” (Both basically mean “go on a date” and borrow directly from the English.)  What this means is that Swedish dating rules are, at best, unwritten, and visitors often find them very confusing.

The second step to romancing a Swede is to understand that gender equality is huge in Sweden.  Guys, women will absolutely expect to be treated as your equal.  Ladies, don’t be shocked if Swedish men don’t fall over themselves to carry your shopping.  Because gender equality is foundational to modern Swedish culture, some Swedish women may even be offended if males go too far with opening every door and trying to treat them like the “fairer sex”.  Genuine warmth and charisma are appreciated by both sexes but save the dramatic serenades for Southern Europe, Swedes are more low key.

At the risk of completely contradicting myself, here’s step three.  A lot of Swedish women complain about the fact that Swedish men are often very shy and don’t like to make the first move.  Often it seems that the average Swedish male needs to be on his fourth round of beers before he can muster the courage to utter a tepid, “Hi my name is Sven” (Yes, if Sven is under 50 and he is like most Swedes, he probably will speak reasonable, if somewhat sing-songy English). Herein lies the opportunity for non-Swedish males: a little charm goes a long way.  Simple things like you initiating conversation or offering to pay for a meal when it was your idea, will equal points.  Women, if you like the shy, mysterious type, Bjorn may be your guy.  Ask him about Swedish bastu (sauna) rituals. He may open up and suggest you go for “fika” (no, that is not nearly as exciting as it sounds – fika is the Swedish custom of sitting down for
coffee and pastries).

The digital age has enabled step four.  Swedes are BIG on texting.  A lot of conversation that you would expect to take place face-to-face, happens via SMS.  Texts are preferable to talking to new acquaintances on the phone. Pick up a number from Greta at ICA (one of the main Swedish supermarket chains) last night?  Texting is your ticket…

And now for step five in reeling in your Swede:  Cultural sensitivity is fine but DO NOT try to be Swedish.  Anyone in any culture can spot a wannabe and Swedes in particular are turned off by phony behavior.  Many Swedes are fascinated with traveling and getting to know people from other places.  So by all means appreciate Sweden but don’t be reluctant to chime in about your own country, its customs and way of life.  Chances are your guy or girl will find what you are saying interesting and they will want to get to know you better.

There’s absolutely no reason to sit alone in your hotel room or apartment while in Sweden.  Put steps one through five into practice and get to know the Swedes you come into contact with.  You’ll be glad you did.  Lycka till!

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Bjorn Karlman