Half the fun of shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey is observing rigid social protocols that seem foreign to modern Western audiences.
Our BiDi 101 series has introduced traits of languages with bidirectional scripts that pose technical challenges in globalization, and this final post highlights social protocols that can trip up Westerners and stall business relationships.
BiDi scripts are predominant all the way from Morocco across the Middle East to Southeast Asia: a vast region that defies cultural generalizations. Nevertheless, the below guidelines generally apply if you’re doing business with companies in BiDi markets.
Not unlike Downton Abbey, class determines the power dynamics of most social interactions in BiDi regions. That means egalitarian, “flat” organizations like those in Silicon Valley and other tech centers are not the norm. Managers and seniors direct their subordinates in tones that may sometimes seem harsh to Westerners, but such tones are expected and mutually-observed protocols within the society.
In the social order of many BiDi cultures, women are considered subordinate to men — but the social norms around this point vary greatly across BiDi markets. Cultures with more Western influence and less religious orthodoxy have more female participation in professional settings. But, unlike the offices of Mad Men, non-business-related conversation with women, prolonged eye contact, physical contact or flirting are inexcusable behaviors in any BiDi market. It’s even somewhat threatening to ask after a male colleague’s female family members.
Honor and Respect
Where class lines form rigid boundaries, manners signal everyone’s awareness and acceptance of their roles. Since these power dynamics are interwoven in business, personal, and family relationships, any perceived disrespect or loss of face is very damaging to a relationship.
Business relationships begin with personal ties in BiDi cultures: considerations about the company or its offerings only happen if the personal relationship is solid. Except in the case of family — and family members routinely do business together — personal ties take a long time to develop over a variety of formalities such as sharing tea, Turkish coffee, or other social events.
The BiDi region is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as several other faiths like Zoroastrianism and Baha’i. Religion in these markets is woven into daily life. That said, not all Muslims are Arabs: in fact, the world’s largest Muslim country is Indonesia. Not all Arabs are Muslims: Christian Arab communities are scattered throughout the BiDi region, among other faiths. Not all Israelis are Jews: more than 20% of the population is Arab, and some of those are Christian. You won’t be expected to know everything about the faith or background of everyone at the table, but you should avoid making uninformed generalizations.
Tactics to Keep in Mind
Globalization managers targeting BiDi markets may interact with a variety of in-country roles, such as focus group participants, linguists, distributors, community leaders, or others who will help bring your solution to market. Taking these actions will help you demonstrate awareness, sensitivity, and respect in ways that nurture the relationships you’re trying to develop.
Take your time.
Participate in formalities like dinners and other social events. Enjoy them, and don’t hurry things along: consider this phase an extended interview evaluating your patience and trustworthiness.
Get to know people as individuals.
Learn as much as you can about anyone you plan to meet: background, family connections, business or career aspirations, and the nature of their relationship to the decision-makers. These insights can help you build trust and influence required to get to the next level.
Be mindful of gender roles.
Expect the roles of women to vary greatly across the countries you’re targeting, and be aware of the local customs. If you or your company decide to break with these gender norms, let that be a strategic decision done for business reasons, and not a social blunder on your part.
Practice local manners and body language.
Greetings, eye contact, hand gestures and sitting postures communicate a variety of things you might not intend in BiDi cultures, and perceived disrespect harms the personal ties you’re struggling to develop. Take some time to study body language guides as a team, and then use regular team meetings to practice reading, using and avoiding cues before you’re put to the test. Pay attention to social and verbal cues about who’s in charge, and mind your manners. Giving too much consideration to subordinates weakens the honor you’re attempting to show their superiors.
Help everyone save face.
Conduct all negotiations in an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable, and make sure no one is slighted in front of their peers. It may be challenging to balance all sides of a negotiation, but your mission is to allow all parties to save face and preserve honor. If you can pull it off, your BiDi business partner will respect you for it.
Plan to accommodate religion.
Try to accommodate key customs and major holidays of Islam and Judaism. Plan business meetings around Islamic prayer times, and don’t propose meetings on the Sabbath or other religious holidays. Order kosher food for practicing Jews. Refrain from offering food or drink to Muslims during the fasting month of Ramadan. And don’t make sweeping assumptions or generalizations about religion, or you may embarrass yourself.
As savvy companies like LinkedIn are noticing, BiDi markets are exciting opportunities for globalization, but they require Western sensitivity to linguistic, technical and cultural differences. Conversations about companies, products and services only take place after everyone feels comfortable on a personal level — and that process takes time, socializing, and possibly repeat trips.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth series on bidirectional languages. Do you have any additional tips for globalization managers targeting BiDi markets? What other topics would you like us to cover in-depth over a series of blog posts?