How to persuade people from different cultures

How often do you have to convince people about your ideas? Just all the time, right? Persuading people can be an even harder task when they are from other cultures. In her book, “The Culture Map,” Erin Meyer adresses this topic and explains how we can be more effective in our persuasion strategies in multicultural teams. As I always say in my articles, just speaking English well is not enough to have an effective communication. So, here goes some nuggets of knowledge and strategies to add to your tool box.

According to Erin Meyer, some cultures focus more on WHY while others focus on HOW when persuading others. But, what does that mean? To answer this question, we first need to understand the Persuading Scale, which is the result of Meyer's research.

The Concept-First cultures fall on the left side of the scale. In other words, they focus on WHY. For example, if you are an American manager giving a presentation to a French team to persuade them to adopt a new plan you have created, you should first explain the theory before jumping into facts, statements, and opinions. They want you to build your argument first before telling them what to do. They need to understand the WHY.

Now, let’s think the other way around. You are a French manager making a presentation to an American team. The first thing you should know before preparing your presentation is that Americans fall on Application-First far right side of the scale, which means that they are the most Application-First-oriented of all cultures. Therefore, they focus on HOW. If you start your presentation with theories and concepts, your American audience may get easily bored and the point of your presentation is likely to be missed. Therefore, you should conduct your presentation in a practical and concrete manner.

How does that work in practice?

I remember when I was a graduate student in the U.S. I never had a class solely focused on theory. We would always see theory followed by practice. In the beginning, I felt overwhelmed because I was supposed to do projects even though I hadn’t had the chance to understand the theory behind it, the WHY. It seemed to me that doing first was more important than understanding first. Not having a clear understanding of the WHY would make me feel demotivated to move to action.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Persuading Scale doesn't work effectively if we analyze cultures isolatedly. The right way to use it is by making comparisons across cultures. For example, although France and Brazil fall on the left side of the scale, we cannot assume they have the same persuading style. France is on the far left side of the scale while Brazil is in the middle, therefore France is much more WHY-oriented than Brazil. Even though I initially felt overwhelmed by all the tasks I had to do during my Master’s program, it was easy for me to adapt after a while because my culture isn't extremely concept-oriented. I don’t need to spend so much time on theory before feeling persuaded to move to action.

Erin tells an interesting story about a team of Brazilians and Americans working for a steel company. The Brazilian team had developed an excellent plan to monitor safety risks. It was working beautifully in Brazil and they wanted to persuade the American office to do the same in their plant in Texas. To make a long story short, they kept trying to explain to the American managers WHY the plan was effective, but with no success to persuade them. Eventually, the Brazilian team changed its strategy and invited the American decision-makers to visit their plant in Brazil to see for themselves HOW the plan was working. After this visit, the American office was convinced to adopt the new plan.

What about the Asian cultures?

You must be wondering why there are no Asian countries in the Persuading Scale. Erin dedicates a whole section in the persuasion chapter to talk about the Asian cultures since they have a completely different mindset from Westerners. Asian cultures have a holistic mindset, where peripheral information plays an important role in the decision-making process. It’s not only about theory, it’s about seeing the whole background. Erin gives an example of an American manager leading a Japanese team in Tokyo. He had a meeting with each team member to explain their short and long-term goals and what they had to accomplish. Later on, he came to realize his strategy hadn’t been so effective. The Japanese team didn’t feel persuaded and comfortable to start working on the project because they didn’t know what the other colleagues were doing, that is, they missed the big picture. So, instead of working on their own tasks, they had to spend time consulting each other to find out what each person was doing so that they could work on their own tasks effectively. It was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

If you work with people from other cultures and you want to improve your persuasion skills, you need to be aware of how cultural differences shape our communication. Just speaking perfect English without developing cultural awareness is like having a musical instrument and not knowing how to play it. You will just make noise.

Once again, I strongly recommend the book "The Culture Map," by Erin Meyer. She illustrates her points with interesting stories from her clients and also provides excellent strategies to communicate effectively across cultures.

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session for free and check how she can help you improve your communication in English
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