In last week’s installment of Moonlighting, we looked into the challenges of just planning a global meeting. This post will continue the theme by examining particular practical issues that arise during global meetings.
The first few minutes of most meetings are passed waiting for people to join, whether in person or on a call. Those who’ve joined early on typically engage in casual social banter to avoid the awkward silence. But on a global call, you need to be careful as nothing says “you’re not an American company” like banter that leads with, “Say, how ‘bout those Knicks?”
Then what should you talk about — world events? Perhaps, assuming you can talk about them without offending anyone (avoid discussing the madness in Western Europe). Safer, but admittedly boring, topics are weather and vacations. And of course, be wary throughout the call of using American business jargon like “get our ducks in a row,” “circle back,” etc. These are best accompanied by a clear explanation of what the idioms mean: “As we say in America, let’s circle back when we have all our ducks in a row. This just means that we’ll give each other a heads up when we’ve got our house in order.” Wait… not that….
Since Esperanto has failed to reach a critical mass (read: yes, it’s us lazy Americans again), communication continues to be a big issue on global calls. Even when everything’s in English, there’s the obvious factor of having to deal with accents and various levels of English proficiency. For example, if you’re dealing with a business that mainly provides Japanese products for Japanese consumers, they’re probably not out there perfecting their English skills on a daily basis.
You will also probably find that your own English usage changes in global meetings. You’ll speak more loudly, clearly, and deliberately (and never with contractions) than you do in casual conversations with other Americans. You may even find yourself picking up grammar quirks used by non-U.S. groups. To avoid offending anyone, I won’t use actual examples, but to give you an idea, think of what it would be like to be on numerous calls with Yoda. Adopt their style of speaking after a while you will. While snicker your spouse may, as listen to your end of these calls at 2:00 a.m. she does (or was that just a snore?), these small adaptations help to make your communications more efficient.
And of course, cultural differences impact global communications as well. In certain countries, employees observe very specific ranking and hierarchical systems, for example, where junior and female employees don’t speak, and senior people are never questioned. (Reminder to self: do not move to those countries until I become senior and a male.)
Sometimes people may say stuff in a global meeting that you don’t quite understand, whether it’s the acoustics of the technology used, accents, English skill, etc. Perhaps you try to simplify the situation by saying, “Okay, can you send me that report you’re referring to so that I can take a look?” The individual may agree, but fail to further convey that the report may be 50 pages long and in another language, so it will take dozens of hours and thousands of dollars to translate — hello, they’ve just agreed to a useless 3-month project (you’re the senior person in the meeting after all, and should not be questioned).
There are also ways silence is used in other countries. Sometimes silence can mean disagreement, sometimes agreement, and sometimes confusion as the other side shrugs and hits the mute button. Similarly, “yes” doesn’t always indicate agreement — it may just mean the responder understands what’s being said (you know, the way you used to respond to your parents whenever they did something like try to communicate). In such cases, you may need to confirm agreement in a different way, like, “Does that sound like a good plan of action to you?,” or “Speak now or forever hold your peace!”
Some other practical issues: A well-run global meeting needs to have a lot of repetition in case points are missed (but keep in mind that you can lose the interest or attention of people who are very familiar with the repeated points). Also, time observation is important — since global meetings are difficult to schedule in the first place, you’ll need to Ms. Peppy Drill Sergeant about the pace of the meeting. Also, for long meetings, you may want to order the agenda based on time zones; you can let some countries/time zones drop off earlier and others join later. As you can imagine, this requires longer pre-planning time and communications.
Some of these idiosyncrasies of having global meetings may intrigue some of you who are curious about becoming involved in global work. Others will want to crawl back under the covers and never come out from beneath their desks again. In any event, for those who have an interest in or are already involved in global work, these types of issues aware of you should be.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.