The Impossibility of Designing a “Perfect” Virtual Meeting in a Multicultural World

When I run my “Leading Engaging Virtual Meetings” workshops, I can’t always tell when certain concepts resonate with participants. That’s because most of the time I deliver my workshops virtually. Last week, however, I delivered my workshop in person to more than 100 savvy marketing consultants and analysts from more than 25 countries around the world. And this time, I could tell whether they found my content interesting, illuminating or relevant. (Happily, most did!)

But the real epiphany for me was the degree to which our respective cultures predispose us to communicating and listening in certain ways during virtual meetings. The implications are profound. The qualities that I, as a North American, might ascribe to a successful virtual meeting may be entirely different than those of my French, Japanese or Bolivian colleagues. For example, I may be uncomfortable with prolonged silence, while others may regard long pauses as essential reflection time. While I may want a written recap of our verbal agreements, others may interpret my need for written verification as a sign of distrust.

This all got me to wondering: If I am leading workshops that demonstrate “best practices” virtual meetings with global teams, who’s to say that my best practices are right for other cultures? For guidance, I turned to the brilliant  book by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, The Culture Map.  I got no further than the first chapter before I started to jot down dozens of ideas. Here are just a few.

(Please note: While I agree that we as individuals have unique personalities, values and traits, I also believe that to communicate effectively, we need to understand enough about our respective cultures to take our “first best guess.” Otherwise, we revert to seeing the rest of the world through our own eyes, which can be a risky bet.)

  • Familiarize yourself with the eight scales that comprise our cultural “maps.” Meyer delineates eight distinctive dimensions which, where differences exist, often get in the way of successful collaboration across cultures: Communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling. For this edition, I am focusing on communications.
  • It’s not enough to learn about the communication predispositions of other cultures. We need to understand how our respective cultures differ relative to each other. For example, I may know that among Europeans, the French derive a particularly high degree of meaning from the context of a message (a.k.a. “high context”). But it’s not until I realize the degree to which we Americans need everything spelled out explicitly to achieve understanding (a.k.a. “low context”) that I know we must find ways to strike a compromise that can make us both feel comfortable .
  • Accept responsibility when communications aren’t working. Have you ever felt confused or frustrated when your seemingly clear question is met by dead silence? (This can feel agonizing in the virtual world, at least to me.) If you pause to acknowledge that perhaps your question was not clear and then ask your question in a different way, chances are you will hear a few people chime in. When you sense that you have not been understood, or you don’t understand others, a little bit of self-deprecation can go a long way to creating a more comfortable environment in which to sort out differences.
  • Listen for the real meaning. Some high-context cultures learn at an early age to communicate subtleties and to “listen” between the lines, Meyer explains. In Japan, the term “kuuki yomenai” means “one who cannot read the air.” A “KY” is synonymous with a poor listener. In France, sous-entendu means, literally, “under the heard,” or saying something without quite saying it. Problems can arise when someone who routinely speaks and reads between the lines searches for the hidden meanings in other’s words. With explicit communicators, there’s little chance they’ll find many hidden messages. Meanwhile, those who communicate explicitly may assume that people with more nuanced communications are deliberately hiding something. When working with a high-context culture, try asking open-ended questions to gently discover the real answer, especially if you suspect it is an unspoken “no.”
  • Consider whether a written recap is needed. Many team leaders I know believe that sending a summary of agreements makes them more real and helps encourage follow-through. For a low-context culture where things need to be spelled out, succinct meeting notes can be crucial, especially when there are few opportunities to talk things through later on. For a high-context culture, however, the written notes can be less important than the verbal agreements. In fact, I have seen more than one project team member from France, for example, become downright annoyed when U.S. counterparts send detailed notes after every team meeting. (“We all know what we agreed to,” said one. “We feel like you don’t trust us to follow through unless you send us a summary.”)
  • Think carefully about the sequence of information. When Meyer first moved to Paris from Chicago, she began her first-ever presentation with her conclusions, a successful approach for her in the U.S. But no sooner had she begun when she was interrupted by people insisting that she first reveal her assumptions and underlying logic. She quickly learned that certain cultures use “principles-first” reasoning (a.k.a. deductive reasoning), such as French and Germans, who seek to understand the “why” before they can move on to the “how.” Those of us (including Americans) who tend to use “applications-first reasoning” (a.k.a. inductive reasoning) look first for the “how,” and sometimes gloss right over the “why.” Even though you may have a compelling message to convey, how you structure your message can make all the difference in the world.
  • Multicultural teams need low-context processes. If your team comprises members from a combination of high- and low-context cultures, err on the side of using explicit verbal and written communications. When people work remotely, there are few opportunities to discern when people don’t share the same understanding of key points. Such misunderstandings can be costly. Encourage your team to create its own ground rules about how members need to communicate to collaborate across time and distance, and check in with each person if you sense any hesitation or disagreement that may go unspoken.

I sometimes think of unexamined cultural differences as tripwires, which can stop a conversation cold, or tarnish a once-promising relationship forever. Take the time to understand how cultural differences are likely to affect the planning and running of your next virtual meeting. A suggested first step: Openly discuss selected cultural dimensions from The Culture Map with your team, and explore the implications for communicating effectively in the future. Trust-building may be a great place to start.


The Culture Map, a book by Erin Meyer

11 Experts Tips for Crossing the Cultural Chasm, past Communique from Nancy Settle-Murphy

Tailor Your Presentation to Fit Different Cultures, Harvard Business Review article by Erin Meyer

Navigating the Cultural Minefield, Harvard Business Review article by Erin Meyer

Mobilize Global Virtual Teams by Avoiding 8 Landmines, past Communique from Nancy Settle-Murphy

Navigating Across Cultures workshop from Guided Insights, delivered virtually or onsite – (PDF file)

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