Why Not Everyone is Speaking Up at Your Meeting

Most of us know what it’s like to feel out of place visiting another country. What’s the right way to greet someone? Is tipping appropriate? How do I eat this food item I’ve never even seen before?

On his blog The Culture Prophecy and website, intercultural consultant Dean Foster examines topics in the news through a “cross-cultural lens” to shed light on why people from varying cultures do what they do across all areas of their lives — including at work meetings.

Just — as Brennan writes — attendees from countries outside the United States might have trouble adjusting to the pace and structure of conferences held here, Foster points out in the article “Deciphering the Mysterious American: Challenges of Working & Living in the U.S.” that people who come to the U.S. for work may have trouble adapting to professional structure and norms that are very different from those their own countries. Meetings are no exception, and expecting those from other cultures to embrace practices like interactive exercises can be “problematic.”

American work culture rewards initiative, creativity, problem-solving. A meeting in America, for example, is typically an opportunity for brainstorming and problem-solving, and everyone invited to the meeting is expected to participate. Hierarchical differences, while understood, typically do not prevent people from speaking up, sharing ideas, or volunteering their opinions.

However, in many cultures, hierarchy, as represented not only by differences in rank, but also gender, age and class, is a formidable definer of behavior in the workplace. In these cultures, individuals who see themselves as subordinate in their role simply do not volunteer ideas, brainstorm in public, or openly speak their mind when in the presence of their superiors. Hierarchical differences in these cultures demand that respect be demonstrated in the form of formalities and protocols that are more easily forsaken in the U.S. for efficiency and informality.

While it’s important to be conscious and respectful of cross-cultural behaviors and practices, it’s also crucial for professionals to understand that the ways someone from outside the U.S. might approach a business meeting or conference session. After all, it’s more than just lunch.

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.