Finding the Master Key in a Cross-Cultural Conversation

We are always wanting to make more effective cross-cultural connections. But what cultural key do we reach for when we begin our conversations?

Are we left to hit and miss? Is there a tried and true strategy we can use? Recently I met with a Mexican client and his wife for dinner. I had lived in Mexico for several years, knew the rudiments of social protocol, and spoke Spanish at the elementary level. Which tool did I reach for to establish rapport with these folks?

The key question I ask myself in choosing the best response to a person from another culture is, “What is the central value to this particular culture?”

In the case of Mexico, and for most of Latin America, family is of central importance. You talk with people about their family, tell stories about yours, and you do this in some detail before you get down to transactional matters like business challenges or political discussions.

I asked her to show me pictures of her children.

That was the key. She smiled and told me “I can see that we will be friends!”

I know of a psychologist who did a post-doctoral fellowship in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Suspicion for North America was at an all time high. However, he and his wife had an infant that drew instant attention and admiration from Russians on the street. The child was their chief conversation piece. The songwriter Sting was on to something when he said

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

The key for cultural effectiveness is not just to find common ground with the other but to know “their” ground and then go there intentionally.


How have you used the central value of a culture for effective cross-cultural connections?

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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