Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Great Global Meetings: Navigating Cultural Differences

Great Global Meetings: Navigating Cultural Differences

Leia em Português


Key Takeaways

  • Any business operating internationally should observe how cross-cultural differences affect teams.
  • Missing opportunities to openly explore how cultural differences affect collaboration can leave a team mired in misunderstandings and invalid assumptions.
  • Bridge teams’ cross-cultural differences with practical adjustments that take cultural differences into account.
  • Use verbal and written communication tools to make all team members comfortable.

This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.


I once asked a Japanese colleague of mine how he thought a meeting went. He replied: "Ah, very good." I was familiar enough with the Japanese culture to know that if someone says, "very good" it may not be. So I asked: "Toshi-san, how did it really go?" He taught me a valuable lesson: "In Japan, we sometimes say you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth." I realized that was a beautiful way for him to gently criticize me for speaking too much in the meeting. It’s also a very good piece of advice for anyone operating internationally: Use your eyes and ears to observe and listen, and keep that mouth under control.

Navigating cross-cultural differences can be hard enough when team members are face-to-face, but when most communications are through some kind of technology—email, phone, IM, video, or online conferencing—it becomes infinitely more complex. A project team, with members from different cultures and belief systems, will face real struggles every day as they make decisions, give feedback, resolve issues, and so on.

In this article, we discuss the importance of learning how cultural differences affect the ability of distributed teams to work effectively. We will offer practical tips for bridging those differences through thoughtfully-planned conversations.

Taking the first steps—starting the conversation

Identifying and bridging cultural gaps across remote teams can be so difficult (and awkward) that many leaders of remote teams tend to minimize the effects of cultural differences by stating unhelpful platitudes like: “At the end of the day, we’re all human and want the same things.” Or, the converse: “We’re all individuals and deserve to be seen as individuals instead of stereotypes.”

Well, that may sound reassuring, but in reality, those types of comments can do real harm to the work and spirit of a global team. Why? Because it actually makes light of or even dismisses, real differences that need to be discussed and worked out for cross-cultural teams to collaborate effectively.

Team members will know their cultural differences are getting in the way, but they don’t have a safe or honest way to talk about them. Without a chance for team members to work through these differences, a collision course is inevitable. By missing the opportunity to openly explore how cultural differences affect its ability to collaborate, a team may become mired in cultural misunderstandings and handcuffed by invalid assumptions. Many may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or asking a question that may be offensive.

Global team leaders should initiate candid discussions about cross-cultural differences as early as possible, ideally when a new team is forming. Cultural differences will affect collaboration one way or another, so it’s best to have team members familiarize themselves with each others’ cultures right up front, so they can decide how they want to work together moving forward.

Here’s how you might get started:

  • Do some homework. Starting with the predominant cultures on your team, seek to understand how cultural differences affect some of the key aspects of collaboration. Examples include: how trust is created, decisions are made, information is shared, feedback is given and received, ideas are presented, confrontations are handled, and progress is measured. Another important difference that can have a big impact on how team members work together: some cultures especially value harmony and teamwork, while others prize autonomy and independence. You can find hundreds of books, blogs, and articles online to get you started. By using a well-chosen key term search (e.g. “Giving feedback in Germany” or “Decision Making AND Japan”) you can find what you’re looking for surprisingly fast.
  • Note how cultural differences are affecting the team. Assuming you’ve allocated sufficient time to have these awkward and sensitive conversations with your team, start by observing how you believe some of the cultural differences are affecting the work of the team, and then encourage people to explain how their cultures affect their approach to work. Finally, help the team agree on a compromise that’s acceptable for all.
  • Choose aspects of teamwork where you suspect the greatest gaps lie. For example, how people give and receive feedback often differs dramatically from culture to culture: “Some of you offer feedback on team calls, and others send me private emails later. As a result, team members often don’t know what others are thinking, which may mean decisions are made with incomplete or incorrect information. By understanding cultural differences, I think we’ll be able to agree on a feedback process that works for everyone. Who’d like to start?”
  • Continue these conversations. Keep at it until you and your team have created shared norms, or operating principles, that help bridge the cultural gaps in areas where you feel they can make the greatest difference. In essence, you will be creating a unique team culture that reflects, accommodates, and sometimes, may supersede any national cultural differences.

I was teaching a cross-cultural communications workshop for a group of managers working for a French-owned subsidiary in Massachusetts. About half were from Paris and half were from America. We were discussing how differently the two cultures regarded time. “The Americans,” said the French, “wanted to bulldoze their way through every agenda item during virtual team meetings, while the French wanted time to digest and discuss.” The group manager, an American, said that she moved through agenda items as soon as she heard the French folks having side conversations because she assumed that meant they were ready to move on. Au contraire, they said. They were having those side conversations to make sure they all understood the key points the same way before the next agenda item, and they resented the fact that she wouldn’t give them the time they needed. That was a big lightbulb moment for everyone. From then on, she built in two minutes between every agenda item, which proved to be a winning solution for all.

Guidelines for great global virtual meetings

But, hang on a minute! My recommendations above require you have an online conversation: a remote meeting. And cultural differences, combined with language differences, have a critical impact when we meet virtually.

One of my clients is a CIO for a fast-growing software company in the Boston area. While senior leadership team members are located mainly in the U.S., several are in India. In advance of a strategic planning retreat, I interviewed the U.S. leaders. They expressed frustration with their Indian counterparts who said “yes” to everything during their virtual meetings, and then found excuses to not follow through with their commitments afterwards. They started to doubt whether the Indian team really had what it takes to do the work. The Indian leaders, meanwhile, reported feeling disrespected and demoralized because their U.S counterparts just wanted to review deliverables instead of having real conversations. When I had them together and explained how differently the two cultures view behaviors that constitute trust, there was an audible gasp in the room. That’s when they realized how important it was to understand each other’s cultures before making uncharitable (and often erroneous) assumptions.

Here are my top tips for a great global meeting:

  • Start with an unambiguous, realistic agenda. State what you plan to achieve in clear, simple language. Especially if new members are joining, indicate that the meeting will be held in English. Build in sufficient time to allow non-native English speakers to translate into their local language and back into English, which can take up to 25-30% more time than a native English speaker may need. Make it clear what you expect from each participant in the form of prework and participation during the meeting. Let team members know if substitutions or additions are acceptable, which is often the case if a strong command of English is required.
  • Establish and enforce meeting norms. At the start of the meeting, summarize which countries, languages, and time zones are represented. Remind people to speak clearly and avoid making interruptions. If you’re using a web meeting tool (such as Zoom, WebEx, Adobe Connect, or Google Hangouts) review the functions you plan to use, such as raising hands or sharing desktops. Make sure all know how to mute the phone, and remind people to say names before speaking. Indicate under what conditions team members may use instant messaging (or tweets). Another norm that helps all feel equally valued regardless of location: rotate meeting times to give everyone a chance to wake up at 5 AM or stay up until midnight.
  • Set the pace. Allocate time for checkpoints at key junctures in the conversation. Pause periodically to let all participants absorb what’s just been said. Some people—Americans in particular—often feel compelled to puncture silence with a comment. For that reason, you may need to set a ground rule to ensure that people maintain these planned moments of silence. If you’re using a web meeting tool, you can invite some participants to make comments in writing during these periods of reflection.
  • Engage all participants equally. Many people can converse more easily by speaking and others by writing. Whenever possible, offer participants a chance to communicate in the ways they feel most proficient and comfortable. In addition to phone usage, make use of web-meeting technology that allows people to submit questions or offer responses in writing. People in some cultures may be reluctant to discuss sensitive or contentious topics out loud, especially where hierarchy is important. In this case, you may want to use a web meeting tool that allows for anonymity. Some, whether due to culture or personality, may be reticent to speak. Make sure to go around the virtual table and solicit input from each team member. Be thoughtful about how best to pose a question that makes it safe for each to respond. Examples: What do you see as the greatest advantage/disadvantage of this solution? If you could change one thing about our proposal, what would it be?
  • Choose the best combination of tools. We strongly prefer to have all calls on video. Videoconferencing can be especially valuable for new virtual team members who want to get a feel for each other’s culture and working environment.  That said, for some meetings, such as a routine weekly status review, it might be fine just using a phone, as long as everyone has access to needed documents. A business requirements discussion, on the other hand, would be most productive if people had multiple ways to get their ideas across, such as writing on an electronic flipchart or posting notes for all to see. When different time zones are involved, allow for asynchronous participation of some sort, such as posting comments or questions in a virtual conference area whenever it’s most convenient. Make sure that meeting notes are posted during the call as a way to verify for accuracy and understanding. Whatever the tool, make sure that all have reasonable access.
  • Accept that silence can mean different things in different cultures. For instance, in Finland, silence means that everything’s fine, that they’ve understood and it’s all good. In other cultures (such as Japan) it can mean: “Yes, I’m thinking about it; I’ve got to digest that information,” or “I’m still thinking about this and I’m not saying,” or “I’m saying yes, as in I’ve absorbed that information, but I’ll let you know later what I really think about it.” And in other cultures, silence can mean disagreement. In Switzerland, for example, you might try to convey through heavy silence that you object to a particular issue. The real trouble comes when the others assume that silence is consensus. When in doubt, have a one-on-one conversation to ensure you understand what that silence is really about.
  • Use analogies for shared understanding. If you suspect that the information you want to convey may be overly complex, consider using an analogy that all can understand, regardless of culture or native language. For example, when describing the actions to be completed prior to closing out a particularly complex project, a colleague used an analogy of a cargo ship leaving port, with all the many tasks that have to be orchestrated in a certain sequence before the ship can push off. People were able to immediately connect with this shared image, making it easier for them to agree on tasks, milestones, and dependencies.

Tips for meetings that include non-native English speakers

Native English speakers often don’t know how to speak and write in a way that can be understood by non-native English speakers. Since English has become the global language of business, it seems like Americans, Brits, and Australians have a huge advantage. But in reality, many native English speakers assume that because they have mastered their own language, they don’t have to consider non-native English speakers. The very best global managers know how to communicate in English really effectively across cultures.

Sometimes nuanced communications just do not translate very well. If you need to deliver bad news, such as telling someone that something is not being done correctly, you usually search for just the right words to get your point across. If you’re speaking with a colleague who speaks the same native language, your words are likely to be interpreted correctly. When working across cultures, however, finding the right words and context can be infinitely trickier. Even if you select words that come across as intended, in some cultures, communicating bad news with a positive spin can be very confusing, and can inadvertently breed distrust, causing people to wonder what your real motives were.

These guidelines have helped many teams navigate the language barrier:

  • Keep the language simple. Use the fewest number of words to get your point across, which may require extraordinary preparation. Enunciate each word clearly, taking pains to pronounce them in a neutral accent. (This can be especially difficult for those with strong regional accents, but so critical for non-native English speakers who may become quickly lost when hearing a dropped “r” or a flat “a.”) Avoid idioms and metaphors, which can confound or even offend others. Americans, in particular, tend to use sports metaphors that have little or no meaning elsewhere. Examples: Full-court press, out of left field, slam-dunk.
  • To minimize opportunities for miscommunication, become familiar with which English words should be avoided, either because they are vague (such as “get” and “do”) or confusing (complex words or idioms). Watch out for “false friends,” similar-looking words that actually mean very different things in English and another language. For example, a French colleague who seems to be “demanding” a response is in fact simply requesting one, since the French demande means to make a request.
  • When planning team meetings, make it possible for team members to communicate both in writing and by speaking, since some feel more confident expressing themselves in one way than the other. Likewise, some comprehend another language more successfully by reading it vs. hearing it. Allow extra time for paraphrasing during team meetings to ensure shared understanding, since many will be reluctant to admit they’re having trouble following the conversation.
  • To avoid misunderstandings when you’re on a team call, ask people to regularly summarize what has been agreed. Vary who you ask, so everyone has a turn summarizing key points as they have heard them. Also: ask open questions to test agreement. If you ask: “Sergey, do you understand? Do you agree?” you may well hear only silence, or a very tentative “yes,” even if the real answer is “no.” By asking an open question such as: “What do you like or not like about this idea?” or “What have you understood as the key point?” then you can get an idea of whether that person understands or agrees. At the same time, you have helped that person save face, which is especially important for certain cultures.
  • Identify and address miscues. If you suspect that someone has responded to a conversation point in a way that suggests she has misunderstood a key point, acknowledge her comment and then proceed to paraphrase the original point and invite her to make an additional comment. If you have trouble following someone’s accent, let him know you are having difficulty hearing him (rather than complaining that you can’t understand his accent), and ask him if he can repeat his point a bit more slowly. If you still can’t comprehend the point he is trying to make, you might try following up with him privately offline.

When planning your next virtual meeting with team members that span time zones and cultures, take the time to view the anticipated conversations through different cultural lenses. For example, if the team needs to make a difficult or contentious decision, consider how you can create a safe space for people from all cultures to voice their opinions. If you’re asking for candid feedback, pose the question in a way that makes it easy for all to respond without fear.

In a virtual world, it’s easy to miss vital nonverbal cues or misunderstand what’s been said. When your team comprises members from multiple cultures, the opportunities for misunderstandings and miscues can grow exponentially without careful planning and exceptional listening skills.

About the Author

Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator, virtual team expert, cross-cultural trainer, interviewer, OD consultant and author. She's specialized in helping organizations achieve exceptional results within a surprisingly short time through highly-productive conversations. Working closely with the clients, she designs and facilitates working sessions that keep people actively engaged, regardless of location or time zone. Her company is Guided Insights.


This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.

Rate this Article