Communicating across cultures begins with the understanding that one size does not fit all
Differences in cultures, as we see so often, can lead to a host of great and small misunderstandings. Take something as simple as a name. It is entirely common in some German companies to use Mr. or Mrs, followed by the surname, even after years of working together. This custom can confuse a visitor from a different culture to the point that negotiations and/or meetings are less successful than they could have been – if only one of the parties had addressed the elephant in the room: How do we address each other?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”
What is perfectly acceptable in one culture may be perceived as too informal or unprofessional in another and that is also for true for the use of someone’s name. Business, conducted by Germans and non-Germans together can get complicated. Can you use first names in meetings? When? How do you know if it’s acceptable? If you ever find yourself in such a situation, here’s what you can do…
When you do business in Germany, assume that ‘Mr..’ and ‘Mrs..’ is the norm. This may throw you, but don’t take this formality as a reflection on you or your business relationship. You should know that it’s very likely “Herr Jung” and “Frau Groß” use last names when they speak to each other, too. The silver lining is that it’s quite a leap forward in the business relationship if someone invites you to use his/her first name.
Take the initiative
Let people know how you would like to be addressed before that elephant shows its long-nosed face. When introducing yourself, give your full name first “Good morning, my name is Bette Ernst.”, then add a simple “Please, call me Bette.” This may seem too friendly, but it certainly establishes one of the most important things you may want them to know: you see them as an ally, a partner, and you want to work with them.
At this point the other person has two options:
- They can take you up on your offer: “That’s very kind, Bette.” And they will probably follow up with an offer for you to call them by their first name: “And, please call me Al.”
- They can politely decline: “Thank you, but we prefer using surnames in this company” or “Thank you. But I think I’d feel better with Mrs. Ernst’.” Then you must keep using their surname, as well. Again, this is not a reflection on you. Some people just prefer to wait until they know someone well – beyond a first meeting – before they start using first names.
Better be safe than sorry
“When I speak to my boss in the office, in a regular conversation, I can use his first name. But in a meeting or in front of the other colleagues…no way!” That was what an Executive Assistant told me when I asked her if she referred to her boss by his first or last name. Always err on the side of safety. Authority and formality matter in a lot of cultures. If you might embarrass the person or call her stature or authority into question by using the first name, don’t do it. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. Again, if they offer to allow you to use their first name, it’s a big step. Well done!
Consider the big ‘but…’
If you expect the meeting to be especially contentious, if you have to negotiate with someone particularly difficult, if the meeting will involve a significant amount of disagreement, or if the discussion involves unpleasant topics, it’s probably better that you stick to more formal language.
Although offering to let others call you by your first name is a great way to immediately ‘warm up the room,’ I think it’s almost never a good idea to ask someone if you can use their first name. “May I call you Peter?” sounds polite enough, but it can put people on the defensive. They may feel you have “crossed a line” merely by asking. You can also suggest that everyone in the meeting use first names, but that’s a minefield you’d do well to avoid.
International business etiquette
Besides the large amount of cultural differences, there are also a large number of commonalities when it comes to doing business internationally. Here are two links:
- The pillars of international business etiquette
- International business etiquette, manners and culture (by country)