We’ve all been there: You’re talking to someone from another culture — perhaps while on a business trip or working with a colleague on a project — when you get a sinking feeling that you’ve made a mistake. Maybe it was a joke that misfired, an unintentional violation of personal space, or a misreading of the context and cues that resulted in someone losing face.
If the mistake happened in your own culture, you could quickly recover, because you’d have a grasp of the etiquette for apologizing. However, when gaffes happen across cultures, they can leave you at a loss for what to do and how to respond.
Here is our five-step process for not only recovering from cultural faux pas but turning them into learning opportunities.
1. Ditch your obsession with performance. To start, reframe how you approach making mistakes, and accept them as inevitable side effects of working across cultures. This is admittedly difficult — especially for perfectionists and those who have a lot on the line, like a member of a global sales team trying to close a deal. It’s also hard if you operate with what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a performance mindset, where mistakes are perceived as evidence of your underlying limitations.
The problem is that when we obsess over the possibility of making mistakes, or panic about how to recover, our thinking constricts. This psychological tightening makes it harder to be loose, spontaneous, and authentic, which is critical for building relationships in the first place.
A perfectionistic, performance-oriented mindset can also make the situation feel more dire than it really is and lead to incorrect and counterproductive assumptions. For example, it can lead us to think that the goal of the cross-cultural encounter is to precisely mimic or “perform” the other culture, as if we are being graded on our performance. This can lead to catastrophizing (“If I bow the wrong way, I’ll blow this deal!”), which takes a toll and delivers little in return.
Far more helpful — and enjoyable — is a learning mindset, where you see mistakes as learning opportunities and chances for improvement. Granted, if you begin as a perfectionist, it’s not so easy to transform into a learner, but it’s not impossible. Remember that improvement takes time and will likely involve making mistakes along way.
2. Equip yourself with knowledge. Cultural faux pas often happen in the flow of everyday life in a new culture, but they can also occur in one-off situations, like a networking event, an interview, or a public speaking opportunity. In these cases, you have more time and resources to prepare yourself by learning the cultural norms. For example, if your role in the company requires you to attend banquets with manufacturing partners in China, you can find out ahead of time what appropriate behavior looks like for your Chinese counterparts and what kinds of cultural trip wires may be present.
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Look into what verbal and body language people use when faux pas occur. For example, do they say “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” — or even smile, laugh, bow, or look away? Do they accept responsibility, show contrition or humility, address it publicly or discreetly, blame it on a subordinate or fate, crack a joke, or simply ignore it and act like nothing happened? Keep in mind that most cultures don’t have one-size-fits-all rules for reacting to mistakes, and context is key. (Even in your own country, it would be a very different matter to have a joke fall flat with a coworker than to accidentally insult a major client.) To obtain these insights, make a habit of observing how people in the culture behave, talk to those with whom you are already building relationships, and consider working with a cultural insider or coach.
Finally, because faux pas usually happen with other people, an important part of your preparation is to invest in key relationships ahead of time. If you regularly work or interact with someone in a positive way, they’ll be more likely to see your faux pas as well-intentioned efforts to act appropriately by someone they like and admire — which of course cuts you some slack as you experiment with unfamiliar cultural behavior.
3. When you make a mistake, keep your cool. How you respond to a cultural mistake often matters as much as the fact that you’ve messed up, so before reacting, take a breath and remember your preparations.
First, assess what kind of mistake you’ve made and whether damage control is necessary. Some gaffes are merely amusing and benefit from a self-deprecating smile, whereas others require an apology. If one is in order — and if you’ve learned what apologies look like in this culture — you can try to deliver one that gets close to what is appropriate. Just as important, if you have established a bond with the people involved, it will be that much easier for them to ignore, dismiss, or forgive it.
4. Engage in self-reflection. Apologizing or responding in the moment may facilitate damage control, but the real learning comes when you use self-reflection to transform your mistake into a cross-cultural lesson you can use.
Start with guided self-reflection questions to better comprehend and create meaning out of the faux pas. For example: What did you do? How did people react? How did you know that you had made a mistake? What other responses were available, and why did you choose the one you did? What might you have missed or assumed? What did you not understand? And what different choices would you make next time?
By examining your interpretations and reactions, you can glean insights about the other culture and about yourself. Consider writing your thoughts down on paper, too. This can help you see them in a more objective and appreciative light. You’ll also have them ready to share with your cultural coach or informant in the next step.
5. Get feedback. A big part of having a learning attitude is showing that you’re open to feedback. Getting feedback is the cornerstone of the cultural learning process, because without it, you’ll never really be able to get outside your head and know if you’re doing it right.
Periodically check in with those you are already building relationships with, and ask them if they’ve noticed you doing anything that might be culturally inappropriate. This gives them the opportunity to provide feedback and clearly signals that you’re open to receiving it in the future, should something arise. If you know that you have an event coming up, like a presentation to upper management in another country, you can even do some practice runs and get feedback before you step into the “performance” setting.
It’s also ideal if you can get feedback shortly after you commit a faux pas — and here is where your self-reflection work comes in. After sharing the scenario and your insights with the people you’re building relationships with, you could ask them to help you understand what you’re missing, where you went wrong, and what a better interaction would look like from the perspective of the other culture. Depending on the nature of the relationship, and whether you have caused offense, you may also want to get feedback about how to make things right again. Ask whether there is anything you can do, or more indirectly, invite them to join you for a coffee to repair any damage. This can help you move forward and also sets the learning process in motion again, with its emphasis on building relationships.
If you’re in an encounter with someone you haven’t built a relationship with yet, you can also lean on your own foreignness, rather than covering it up. This tactic can be especially useful if people can’t visibly tell that you are from a different culture and therefore might not be giving you the benefit of the doubt. Once they know that you’re a cultural outsider, they may slow down, show or tell you what would work better, or even smile or laugh.
In the end, no one wants to commit cultural mistakes, but they are the very best way to learn. By adopting a proactive stance where you work toward avoiding faux pas while simultaneously leveraging them as learning opportunities, you’ll have a major leg up in your ongoing development as a global professional.
Source: Harward Business