Holding a Multicultural Meeting? Keep These 4 Tips in Mind

How to ensure your meeting’s critical messages won’t get lost in translation

From awkward introductions to tricky translations, cultural gaffes in our connected world are common. And there’s a fair chance that you’ve experienced something similar in your profession, be it with first encounters (shake hands or bow?) or menu conundrums––and if you haven’t hosted a multicultural, multilingual event within the past year, you probably will soon. From cultural nuances to communication styles, there’s a lot to consider in preparation. 

Here are five key ideas to keep in mind when hosting a multicultural event. 

Avoid Overgeneralizing

Naturally, studying your attendee list and their respective cultures is critical for holding an international meeting. Yet take these good intentions too far, and you could risk cultural stereotyping. 

Instead, says Harvard Business Review, ask yourself a focused yet varied set of questions about your attendees, such as the companies they work for, socioeconomic status and job level, for a more comprehensive overall picture. Citizenship and ethnicity may be factors in predicting how others might behave, but there are certainly other nuances at work. 

Timing is Everything

While each guest who attends your function is first and foremost an individual, you should also consider what a group might do collectively. One major example: punctuality (or lack thereof). 

Anne Loehr, a Huffington Post blogger and leadership writer and speaker, outlined the overall importance that Indian, American, British, Swedish and Chinese cultures place on promptness in business. In Indian cultures, for example, time isn’t linear––it’s measured by how crucial a particular event might seem. 

While it might be annoying or offensive if a few attendees stroll in late, your best bet is to plan ahead. Try sending attendees written agendas ahead of time or providing a written version of the presentation in PowerPoint form immediately after the meeting. 

Know Your Speaking Styles

In some hierarchical cultures, speaking out of turn when a high-ranking person is speaking is a no-no. This can make attendees feel afraid to speak up, no matter how amazing their ideas might be or how long you leave the discussion floor open. 

To ensure all guests have a voice, make meetings multifaceted. Don’t stick to a last-minute Q&A where attendees are pitted against one another. Give them comfortable venues to freely speak their minds, whether it’s with you in the hallway after you’ve presented or by means of a private email forum after the meeting is over. 

Cater to the Crowd

While speaking styles, punctuality and general communication might differ wildly among cultures represented at your meeting, one thing’s for certain: Food will bring everyone together. That is, unless you’ve failed to do your dining homework. 

If your guests are from a country where drinking is frowned upon (or even illegal), nix the cocktail service for an elaborate juice or tea station. And always consider cultural sensitivities when you’re thinking of serving pork or shellfish.  

The bottom line: Know your guests’ dietary limitations and preferences before planning the menu.