Last year, I helped another attorney with a case and attended a client meeting with him. We waited for the client in the conference room with 3 other people. When the client arrived, he apologized from being late in a thick Russian accent and proceeded to shake everyone’s hand . . . except mine.
I wasn’t imagining it. He shook hands with the lawyer to my right, skipped me, shook hands with the man to my left, the man next to him, and the man next to him.
So I stuck my hand out and introduced myself.
You bet that my head was half in the meeting and half mulling over whether this meant that he would dismiss everything I said in that meeting. He was paying me for my advice so ignoring me only hurts him.
After the 2 hour-long meeting, I went straight to Google and typed: “women handshake in Russian culture” and found an article in The Moscow Times that said:
“In Russia, I have learned not to shake hands with women unless she offers her hand first. It is perfectly normal in a business setting for a man to enter a room and shake hands with all the men present, whether he knows them or not, and not offer his hand to a single member of the fairer gender.”
Had I read that article before the meeting, I would have saved myself a lot of agony and been able to fully focus on the meeting.
The thing is, I should have known better. I am bi-racial and bi-cultural, having lived roughly half of my life in Asia and the United States. I studied abroad and lived with a host family in Spain and even took a graduate level course in Cross-Cultural Conflict Resolution. I know that people from different cultures communicate differently. This was a minor oversight on my part but it was a good reminder to do my cultural research before other meetings. Since I practice law in a diverse place like Southern California, I’ve had reason to research South African, Persian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Korean “communication styles” before meetings.
Cultural awareness in business is essential and failure to research cultural norms could be detrimental when you are closing a sale or negotiating a deal with a foreign counterpart. When you look for an attorney, their inability to communicate in your, your opposing counsel, or opposing party’s “cultural language” will undermine their ability to build trust.
Americans tend to communicate in a more direct manner than in many parts of the world. How many time have you said “let’s get down to business,” “let’s get to the point,” or “time is money.” Therefore, employing an American communication style with someone from a culture that communicates less directly may be viewed as rude or pushy. On the other hand, an American who forgets the importance of building rapport before getting down to business, the importance or saving face, or triangular resolution style of other cultures will often get frustrated in those interactions.
If you are looking for an attorney, consider whether the attorney you consider hiring could effectively solve a culturally diverse problem.
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