Author Archives: The Conflict Expert

What being “professional” means to different cultures and why this creates conflict

As I write this, I am still feeling the frustration of dealing with an Italian car hire company. What has irritated me is what I perceive to be a lack of attention, care or interest in my complaint that the car provided was not road worthy.  In England or the US, we’d expect a response based on principles of good “customer service” which is exactly the opposite of what I was faced with when I encountered a problem with my hire car.

I have to remind myself that each culture and indeed person, has a different view of what being “professional” is. It’s this clash of perception that causes conflict. This blog post is about helping you to identify and accept that certain concepts are viewed differently in cultures different to ours. It’s not right or wrong, it just is and once you accept that, you can manage this without it leading to conflict.

What is professional behaviour and why is it important?

The idea of “customer service” is entrenched in North American culture and has filtered down to other Anglophone countries. As somebody born and raised in the British culture, I know what to expect when I request a service . Usually, as a paying customer, my politeness is met with the same method of relating which can involve a friendly but respectful distance. To quote Joel Schumacher’s epic film, Falling Down, “have you ever heard the phrase, the customer is always right?” This encapsulates the idea and to most of you reading this, you will be familiar with what it entails.

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This is also reflected in how a professional person resolves problems. Constructive communication is used to express empathy, concern , regret and a commitment to rectify any issues in an appropriate manner. The attitude of the service provider is proactive and no matter what the reaction of the client is, the aim is to de-escalate any aggression. Why? Put simply,  so you will continue to be a customer.

An unprofessional attitude is one which leaves any problems to the customer to sort out, or expresses disinterest in their distress or anger. I was recently shouted out aggressively by a restaurant owner because I had enquired about the whereabouts of my salad which I had been waiting for over an hour. He said he had fifty other clients to serve and I should be ashamed of thinking I deserved special treatment . A lack of respect, politeness or appropriate formality also indicate a lack of professionalism whether in the office, in a restaurant or anywhere else.

This is important because adopting a classic, professional approach in your business will minimise and avoid conflictual situations. Negotiations are more productive when the parties are polite and respectful to one another, mainly because this recognises the other person as a valuable human being worthy of respect. Going back to my car hire story, although the company representative was polite, she was dismissive and unwilling to provide solutions, telling me it was my choice whether I  drove the car or not and she didn’t have a substitute car for the following two days. I felt unacknowledged and unimportant and as I have written before, much of conflict is an attempt to assert our self-esteem and in doing so, we may use a variety of personal tactics to create an illusion of control to protect our egos. Although I felt very angry about this, I focused on my breath and took a step back, pointing out instead the leverage I had to persuade the company to give me a refund.

It’s not all one way

We are only humans and sometimes we don’t respond patiently and calmly, especially when emotions are triggered. Having written all of this, the customer can be wrong. If you are faced with a particularly rude client, the best way to de-escalate is to offer sincere acknowledgement of their emotions using phrases that express empathy, listen to what they say carefully and only when they have finished, add your comments. Descending into destructive forms of communication removes any semblance of professionalism so it’s best avoided. Empathy and compassion transcend cultures, a fact I am reminded of every single time I have experienced kindness from people from all over the world.

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Ultimately, misperceptions fuel conflict. Had I pointed out to the car hire company that by English standards, their customer service was terrible, this would not have registered and why should it? It is Italy, after all. What this tells me is, however, that my perceptions and standards are not replicated by everyone and it’s futile to take it personally.

This realisation is important for anyone working in an international environment. Your colleague may not be “rude” or “bad mannered” . These too are social standards applied differently depending on your background or culture. In Italy for example, it’s considered rude not to say good morning to the whole office when you arrive. That’s not the case in England and may even be seen as a bit strange and invasive. Having worked with several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s also perfectly acceptable in a professional context to show anger or aggression openly and sometimes, destructively, whilst in England it’s extremely frowned upon in the office. In Japan, the more junior you are, the more acceptable it is to fall asleep in a meeting, much to my surprise during a presentation I was giving to a Japanese client. That certainly made me question by public speaking skills until I made some enquiries!

The key, as always is to remember that your standards of customer service and your expectations in a professional relationship are not always mirrored by the other person because of a variety of factors, one of which is the culture and environment they operate in. I’ve made some very general comments and of course, stereotypes can be dangerously misleading. That’s exactly why the best advice is to keep an open mind, ask polite questions that help you understand the other person’s point of view and listen actively to the answers before taking anything personally. Good luck!

As always, please feel free to leave a comment!

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