Networking as a cross-cultural skill

Are you a natural networker who enjoys the opportunity to meet new and different people or do you prefer to stand on one side chatting with people you already know? Does your heart sink when you walk into a room full of strangers or do you view the room as an exciting challenge full of potential business partners and interesting contacts?

Whether you are looking for your next opportunity, trying to boost your profile within your organisation or connect with potential new clients networking is an essential business skill.  Despite what you may think, you don’t need to be an outgoing extrovert to be an excellent networker but you do need well-developed communication skills and a certain amount of confidence to start a conversation with a stranger.

The ability to connect easily with people from other backgrounds, be curious about their context and find common ground is also an important skill when working across cultures.  If you attend international conferences, work with a global clients or partners, or make visits to overseas subsidiaries you may find yourself at networking events and under pressure to make new connections with local or global partners.  In your enthusiasm, you may fail to observe the cultural nuances at play and adopt an approach to networking that works well at home but not away.  Knowing how to adjust your cross-cultural communication style and respond appropriately will help you to build your international network and form relationships with people from other parts of the world.

Here are some useful cross-cultural pointers for new and experienced networkers alike:

Turn it up or dial it down?  In North American cultures, for example, an assertive approach is seen very positively; you can speak quite loudly, make strong eye contact, shake hands very firmly and interrupt other conversations.  However, this may not go down as well with people from other parts of the world, in East Asian cultures for example, where this approach could come across as overpowering or even aggressive.  Assess the energy levels of others in the room and be ready to turn your volume up or down to match your environment.

Personal space can be very personal in some parts of the world and less so in others.  If you are networking in Latin America or the Middle East be prepared for your new connections to stand closer than you would like.  And avoid the urge to step away! 

Use your connections.  In some cultures more than others, who you know is extremely important and leveraging existing contacts, can play an important part in making new ones.  Asking for formal introductions or even name dropping will help ease you into new conversation and will also help you to find common ground.

Business card etiquette varies enormously from culture to culture but a good rule of thumb is to make sure you look carefully at a new business card, place it carefully in a wallet or card holder and never write on it in sight of the giver.

How personal is too personal?  If you are spending time in a relationship-focused country such as India or Brazil be ready to be asked questions about your personal life quite soon in the conversation.  If you feel uncomfortable answering such questions make sure you field them politely.

Listen actively and attentively. This is a universal networking principle and an invaluable cross-cultural skill.  Showing interest, asking questions and using body language to show you are listening will always triumph over talking about yourself!

Finally remember that wherever you are networking and whoever you are trying to meet, networking is a two-way street.  Focus on how you can help the people you meet as much as what they can do for you.  And who knows, you might really enjoy it and find you have made interesting personal as well as professional connections.

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