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When in-person meetings aren't an option: Three tips for smooth communication with international volunteers and vendors

Having executed several international meetings for various association clients in the past ten years, I have learned that clear communication is key to getting a project moving along smoothly.

I would be lucky to meet the board of directors, executive committee members or vendors in person twice a year. Once is more realistic. So, what to do when you rely so much in communicating via email or a phone conference to an audience with varying cultures, time zones and language? Here are a few tips.

Know your audience. When setting up a conference call, specify the time zones of your meeting participants. So, 8 a.m. CST is 9 a.m. EST, 2 p.m. GMT, 3 p.m. CET and so on. This helps your meeting participants respond quickly to your invitation or poll without having to convert the time themselves. If you are polling participants through Doodle, know that Doodle automatically sets the correct time-zone for each participant. Your time options will display according to where they are located (per their IP address or Doodle account setting). When participants open the Doodle request, they’ll see a time-zone drop menu above the poll. They can change their time zone here if it is incorrect. Advise your participants to check this before replying.

Clarify. There are various nuances in culture and local slang. Take time when reading email or listening on a call to fully understand what has just been said. If you are not sure what your volunteer or vendor is telling you, try rephrasing it and ask if you understood it correctly.

Keep it simple. When sending email communications, use simple, straight-forward language. Avoid long sentences. Avoid slang or idiomatic expressions. It’s not a “cool” idea but a good one.

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Working across cultures takes a little homework, a willingness to learn


Working in today’s world means frequent interactions with different cultures and adapting to new business practices. Just because our reality is evolving to be much more flexible with these nuances does not mean they deserve any less thought, respect or effort in their understanding. When it comes to working with a global team, here are some points to take into account to achieve success:

Do your research. Doing a little homework about the new languages, cultures and traditions of those you will be working with is invaluable. You’ll be surprised at how unique business practices can be. For instance, in Japan, the business card exchange has a great amount of presentation and symbolic gesture. In France, you exchange a prescribed amount of “bisous,” or cheek kisses, depending on the type of relationship. And in India, business meetings begin with small talk that often takes over and in the end no work is actually accomplished.

Don’t be afraid to put down the books and articles. Learning these basics will help you ease into working internationally and, with practice, you will become more comfortable. What you don’t want is to put yourself in a position where you are labeling a culture with stereotypes and expecting these behaviors with each interaction. In reality, you will find other cultures often recognize that not everyone understands or follows their traditions and they will do their best to make you feel comfortable. If you ask, they might even teach you some things you couldn’t have learned in your research.

Willingness to learn. Talk to your new colleagues and leaders and find out what makes their culture important to them. Ask about how they feel, act, think, vacation, work, to expand your own horizons and build these relationships. If you are not willing to learn what makes different cultures different, you will quickly come off as disinterested. What a shame to miss such an opportunity! Disclaimer: Always be respectful and be careful of pressing too hard if it is clear the person is uncomfortable sharing.

Role of technology. It can be a challenge to plan conference calls and secure a time that works across six-plus time zones, not to mention trying to coordinate travel for in-person meetings where you find yourself dealing with currency conversions, customs and visas. With varied physical locations, it’s tricky to reach someone on the other side of the world when it’s 2 a.m. for them and you need to know right then who the special guests are that they’re inviting.

With a little patience and planning, these hurdles can be overcome. Many tools are available, like the World Clock Meeting Planner at that assists in planning meetings in different time zones. You can even customize the locations you’re working with and save your own “Personal World Clock.”

Communication is key. Good communication and people skills are keys to any relationship. When you are working across cultures, this is ever more important. Just because you underlined, bolded, and italicized your request in an email doesn’t mean the message that it’s urgently important reached the recipient. What it comes down to is treating each person as we want to be treated. That Golden Rule we learned in grade school holds true even in today’s ever-changing world.

In the end, we live and work in a world that is becoming increasingly more connected. While we may not be able to control what brings us together, we can certainly make the most out of meeting new friends and colleagues from around the world. It just takes a little extra effort to recognize that we are as much alike as we are different and that we all have much to bring to the table.

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