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Coping with Cultural Differences

One of the basic principles of communication is that we find it much easier to build rapport with those that are most similar to ourselves, in age, culture, and social upbringing. But what about the many varied cultures we deal with in business every day? Jo Hamilton, from Kaplan Professional, gives us some tips to help you communicate more effectively with clients from different cultural backgrounds.

Developing cultural sensitivity is crucial for a successful Real Estate career. Real Estate is a ‘people business’ and your success can depend on how well you relate to people from many different types of cultural backgrounds. We can increase our communication competence by increasing our flexibility, that is, being able to change our behaviour and our thinking, based upon each unique situation we find ourselves in.

Be sensitive to body language
Many cultures expect a higher level of hospitality than might normally be extended by the average Real Estate agent in Australia. Even though you may be time poor and results focused, if you want to break the ice and build rapport, take the time to accept your clients’ offers of hospitality. Even if you do not want to accept the offer of food, tea or coffee, ask for a glass of water instead, ensuring you take a few sips. It is your willingness to participate in their customs that is important – and, of course, remember to return the hospitality when the client is in your territory.

Read as much as you can about the culture of the clients you deal with and observe their body language cue. Some cultures, for example, the Lebanese or Italian, will have a second point of contact whilst shaking hands, such as a touch or pat on the elbow or shoulder, or may even cover your hand with both of theirs. Other cultures may prefer not to shake hands at all, instead using head bows and nods to indicate respect. Whilst Anglo-Australians generally see direct eye contact as preferential for indicating honesty, other cultures such as the indigenous Australian and Pacific Islanders, prefer decreased levels of eye contact, dependent upon on a person’s comparative status and social position. So, the behaviour that signifies honesty and openness in one culture may signal arrogance and disrespect in another.

What is considered courteous behaviour can differ greatly from one culture to another. For example, it is usually important to see an Egyptian client out to the door of the agency, being sure to shake hands both at the beginning and at the end of the meeting. In some cultures, such as the German, it is a sign of great disrespect to be late for an appointment, whilst in other cultures, such as South American, there is a much looser interpretation of time commitments and a 2pm appointment may mean anything from 2 til 3!

Use familiar language
The larger the cultural difference between the parties, the greater the potential for uncertainty and discomfort. In these circumstances, the techniques of effective communication – such as building common ground, active listening, perception checking and seeking feedback – become even more important.

Try to create a common understanding by choosing words that are familiar to the other person, using a simple message instead of a more complicated one. Many times, after we have actively listened to a message from a person of a non-English speaking background, we take the more simple message we received and in feeding it back, we convert it into our more ‘sophisticated’ or complicated version that is difficult for the other person to recognise.

For example, a Cantonese speaking tenant comes in to report that their stove top is broken. They will most likely use their own words, such as: “the cooker is broken”. You may likely respond with a much more complicated version: “Oh, the element on your stove top is broken? I will call our electrician, it could be that the wiring has burnt out, then again it could be the dials not working…. or the thermostat. I will organise a repair…” etc. The tenant is likely to keep trying to tell you the same story until she hears you use words that are familiar to her (‘Yes, we will fix the Cooker’), only then will she be satisfied that the message has successfully been conveyed.

This technique is called ‘verbal blending’. It involves feeding back the same familiar words the other person has used, instead of creating a more complicated version of their message. It is a simple strategy, but one that really works. If you practice this technique, your clients will appreciate how it reduces their stress and simplifies the process of communicating with you, as they struggle with English as a second (or third or fourth) language.

Listening to the ‘life story’
Have you ever had the experience of a client from another culture who, when making a request or a complaint to you, tells you a long and involved story rather than coming to their point quickly? You are on the receiving end of so much more background detail than you need or would prefer to get, and meanwhile, frustratingly, your other calls are backing up. (I call this the ‘life story’ syndrome).

This clash is because, in Australia, customer service providers normally prefer customers to make their point or request up front and then provide further information as needed, once the right person to deal with the issue or problem has been located. In some other cultures however, customers are expected to explain their situation in full to the service provider before they make their request, otherwise it is considered rude on their part. A simple understanding of the basic motives behind these ‘cultural ‘rules’ reduces many of the feelings of aggravation and conflict, and helps you to solve issues more quickly.

Polite or rude?
When you have grown up speaking English it is easy to forget that English is a language that is heavy with ‘polite words’. For example, in Australia it is expected that we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ every time an object changes hands. However, in some cultures, “thank you” is only used when someone has done you a personal favour.

Be careful not to judge someone as rude just because they don’t understand our cultural conventions. Sometimes it’s not so much an issue of courtesy but rather our complicated grammar that can get in the way of effective communication. “I was wondering if you could possibly consider …” is so much harder to understand than simply saying “I want you to do this please”

Open questions
People using the Anglo American style of communication typically show they are listening by making eye contact, nodding and saying “yes”. Other cultures may say “yes” or nod to assure you that they are listening respectfully, not because they necessarily understand or agree with you. With these situations, it is better to ask them open questions, rather than questions to which they can answer just answer “yes” or “no”. This will test that they understand fully what you have said.

“I’m sorry, but …”

The British style of customer service that is prevalent in Australia can also present many problems. When delivering a negative message, we tend to preface it with the words. I am terribly sorry but … For example: I am sorry but the landlord is not willing to repaint the property after you have just moved in, having negotiated the lease based on the property’s present condition.

In many other cultures, however, prefacing your statement with the words “I am sorry but …” is a verbal cue that this is your opening position only, and that you might be willing to negotiate if they keep pushing you.

So if you really do need to communicate a message that is non negotiable, don’t try and blunt your statement with the words “I am sorry…’; just say “no” straight out, firmly but politely. It will indicate to the other party that you mean what you say and this is not a negotiable issue for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask
If I commented objectively and politely on differences I had observed, I usually found that people were happy to educate me to their culture, once they realised that I was genuinely interested in improving my empathy and communication with them.

Remember to be respectful of the different values others hold and, most importantly, always try to model good Australian communication and culture yourself, so that you can help educate the other person about Australian sensitivities and norms.

Multiculturalism is part of our Australian way of life and of doing business. Learning to be a better communicator is always fun, but learning about communicating across cultures is one of the most useful and interesting things you can do to improve your skill levels, your stress levels and your value as a Real Estate agent.

Jo Hamilton recently joined Kaplan Professional as a Curriculum Specialist for Real Estate, Learning Resources. She has three decades of experience in the Real Estate sector, and two decades in tertiary education. Jo also runs a successful consultancy business in property-related training services and the production of hands on, interesting, and practical learning resources.

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