I once worked for a Filipino department director. Above all else, he was incredibly modest by American standards. He was quick to credit others for their accomplishments and he never bragged or boasted even in quieter moments when his success was obvious. He is an incredibly pleasant person – very easy to work with and respected by his entire staff. I tried to always follow his lead, reflecting compliments and downplaying my achievements. But a few months ago, I ran into him on my way to a meeting. In the middle of our hallway conversation and without thinking, I boasted about a recent achievement – a milestone in global social media. Immediately his expression changed and I knew what I had done.
The challenge for entrepreneurs is to know how much modesty is expected in another business culture. Too much modesty and you will be discounted for your knowledge and skills. Too little modesty and people will avoid you because they view you as an obnoxious bragger. Some will tell you that you should always just say what you would normally say. But I think savvy entrepreneurs always need to know their audience in order to know how their message will be received.
Modesty Correlates Generally with Indirect Communication
Generally speaking, you can expect the level of expected modesty to match the level of indirect communications. The most indirect communicating cultures are in East Asia – cultures like the Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and of course Filipino. Modesty is less valued in direct communicating cultures like East Coast U.S. and Israel. But a few words of caution…
Let Your Body Language Show Your Confidence, Not Your Words
Start by standing up straight, controlling the number of non-verbal cues you give, and making eye contact as much as is allowable in the other culture. By showing your confidence non-verbally, it allows your words to error more on the side of modesty and gain greater respect in most cultures.
Your business clothes in most cultures should be generally conservative and more formal. Wear a quality suit in a darker color. Ladies: no showing cleavage or wearing short skirts to distract from the business at hand. Being well dressed shows confidence without losing modesty.
Give Sincere Compliments Often
Always be looking for potential deeds or things you can complement in your counterparts. It needs to be something you genuinely feel. Examples might include: “Your business operations seem to be very efficient.” “You live in such a beautiful area of the country.” “You have been such an excellent host.” “Your company has many loyal customers.” You can expect that in most cultures your compliments will be downplayed. In Asian cultures the compliments will be rejected but appreciated. In Europe and North America, you can expect a modest thank you. When you receive compliments, tailor your answers to the local custom.
One Final Caution
Never compliment the appearance of anyone from the opposite gender. Even if your female colleague or business partner truly does look great, she does not want to hear it from you. It will just make her feel uncomfortable. A note to ladies: in many cultures you may be propositioned for sex. While in many cultures this is considered a compliment, very carefully deflect advances no matter how angry and uncomfortable such a request might make you feel.
I wish you all the best of success in all of your international business dealings. For more articles related to gaining Cultural Competency, please read more.