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Costly cultural mistakes your employees make during Zoom calls and how to fix them

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Pre-pandemic, when you boarded an international flight, there were incessant reminders that you were about to enter a different culture, starting with a safety briefing in multiple languages. Today, the distance traveled for an international meeting is between your kitchen and home office.

Without jetlag to remind us of cultural nuances, we forget that cultural differences can make or break the success of our video meetings.

Video calls, while convenient, don’t reduce cultural differences — they amplify them.

In fact, with fewer perceptual cues available, video calls often intensify the effect that cultural differences have on establishing trust, earning credibility, and communicating effectively.

Making cultural mistakes is costly. Addressing them is not and small changes can make a big difference. Try this next time you're in a video call:  

Don’t sit too close (or too far) from the screen. When we communicate in person, we move closer or further from a person based on what feels natural. Too close may feel intrusive, while too far may appear aloof. For video calls, adjust your distance to match other participants.     

Mirror eye contact. We know that looking into the camera is akin to making direct eye contact. In some cultures, eye contact is a sign of trustworthiness and confidence. In others, it’s a sign of aggressiveness. Maintain the same level of eye contact as others on the call. If your goal is to make eye contact, look at the camera — not the screen. 

Match formality. In this past year, we’ve all grown accustomed to video conferencing with colleagues in their homes — seeing them dressed casually or hearing their dogs barking.

For some cultures, working from home has increased informality. For example, Americans are more comfortable eating during Zoom meetings. But such informality can seem rude to those from cultures who view formality as a sign of respect. Try to match your attire, call background, or home office setting to the others on the call.  When in doubt, be more formal.

Interpret silence correctly. In some cultures, silence demonstrates that you are attentive and engaged. In others, silence indicates disinterest. If you’re from a culture that uses silence to show engagement, you might need to “jump in” faster. If you’re from a culture that shows interest by interjecting, you might need to pause more often.

Use the right amount of small talk. When we’re interacting with business colleagues in person, it’s natural to have some level of non-work conversation before the start of the meeting. In some cultures, this social time is minimal because trust is based on technical and transactional competence. 

For these cultures, move directly to the agenda is appropriate.  In other cultures, professional trust builds from social relationships. In these relationship-oriented cultures, you should engage in more non-work conversation to foster rapport. Understand this difference before the meeting and adjust your non-work conversation accordingly.

While a video call requires only 30 seconds to set up, it’s important to take the time to learn how to adapt your behavior to the cultural expectations of those on the call to get the most out of your meetings. 

Paula Caligiuri is a D'Amore-McKim School of Business professor in International Business at Northeastern University