New Zealand Law Society - Traversing cultural barriers

Traversing cultural barriers

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Being prepared to traverse cultural barriers is essential for the modern business and asking how your firm’s cultural quotient adds up may be one of the most important inquiries you make.

New Zealand’s cultural diversity continues to grow, with 25% of all “kiwis” now born overseas. In Auckland two out of every five people arrived into this world on foreign shores. These citizens and future clients, just as you do, possess a range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive cultural assumptions which can act as barriers to positive business outcomes.

If you have ever experienced a client meeting where there was difficulty understanding language, or where the client seemed to be very abrupt, aloof or displayed body language that seemed to be a bit odd to you, it is possible that you have been encountering cross-cultural barriers.

Major barriers

These barriers tend to be of three major types:

Cognitive barriers

Represent our frame of reference. Those deeply engrained beliefs and values that form who you are and how you view the world. How we judge others, what we value as success, whom we look to for guidance and our tolerance to difference – these are all strong drivers for shaping our personality traits.

Behavioural barriers

Manifest themselves in a variety of ways: in how we talk – the volume, tone and pace, or in our use of gesture, eye contact, nods and smiles. These often non-verbal communicative tools help express our desires, fears and understanding of situations both formal and social in nature.

Emotional barriers

Can take the form of how we approach relationship building. How we regulate our enthusiasm, respond to disappointment and if we share personal information are all emotional characteristics forged from our normative world view.

As business leaders, we need to avoid an ethnocentric approach in our thinking, and cast a more patient and reflective lens over how we view people. We should remove stereotyping and not permit assumptions – after all, these are not welcome in business planning. Therefore we ought to be purposeful in positioning ourselves to be cognisant and respectful of cultural diversity.

This applies, of course, not only to clients’ benefit, but is for the benefit of our own employee and collegial relationships. It can be useful to understand that identifying cultural differences, only then to highlight them, may only lead to less cohesion and understanding. Instead, think about how these differences are important and may affect those in your workplace – and be ready to support, respond and understand when appropriate.

Differentiated culture

These ideas are of importance given the last New Zealand Census which reports how significantly differentiated our “kiwi” culture has become. Here are a few points of interest from the 2013 census data:

  • New Zealanders identifying as MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American or African) increased by 35%, and of Asian descent by 33%.
  • Our Pacific peoples population increased by 11%.
  • English, Samoan, Hindi and Northern Chinese (including Mandarin) make up the four most commonly spoken languages in the home.
  • 42% of New Zealanders now do not identify with any religion. However, those identifying as Muslim or with Hinduism increased 40% and 28% respectively.
  • Asian, Pacific peoples and MELAA New Zealanders are much younger than those identifying as of European descent.

Differences can vary significantly between cultures and it is simply not possible to be au fait with them all. However, there are some general areas of human behaviour that vary between cultural groups.

When establishing new business relationships some of the following, while not exhaustive, may be helpful to consider before meeting your client for the first time:

Making introductions

In many cultures, handshakes, while common, may not be the most appropriate way to conduct formal introductions. Familiarising yourself with how to respond to non-western greetings may go a long way to forming a positive environment. A good example for this is in India, greeting with “namaste” while placing both hands together with a slight bow may be appreciated.

Who speaks first?

Don’t dive into a conversation without understanding protocol. Equally, don’t assume the person who introduced themselves first is the client or the person making the decisions.

Who to talk with

Sometimes meeting with a couple doesn’t automatically mean that both parties will be involved with the conversation or decision making – at least not in public. In many cultures hierarchies are still important. Hierarchies also apply to gender, age and, in some cultures, family position. You don’t need to agree with this but having awareness may prevent a cultural faux pas.

How we talk

In many Asian-based cultures, the Western penchant for loud outbursts of enthusiasm when discussing ideas may be seen as quite rude, given a quiet and considered approach is the normative approach. Think about your tone of voice and the words you choose.

Discussing price

In some cultures not being prepared to discuss the price is highly offensive. You may wish to consider how and when to talk about costs.

Where, and how, shall we sit?

Personal space varies considerably between cultural groups as does body positioning. When meeting clients from Thailand, for example, you should never point your feet at the client as this is considered highly offensive behaviour. (See


Of course, most of us are very forgiving when we encounter cultural faux pas. However, to avoid these, it is not enough just to recognise what these potential differences are. The good business leader ought to establish strategies and opportunities for preparing and dealing with new relationships.

Indeed, New Zealand’s increasing diversity will invariably be reflected in your own workplace. The following strategies may also be applied to preparing for and embracing your own business’s cultural mix:

  • learn a little about your clients’ culture;
  • identify cultural commonalities – utilise these to help overcome other barriers;
  • utilise existing cultural capital within the firm for translation or advice on cultural etiquette including matters of gift giving, dress and punctuality;
  • consider the role of colours and cultural iconography in meeting spaces and your personal dress;
  • set your meeting room layout in advance;
  • compile short translations introducing your services or your team – these may be placed in the foyer of your practice;
  • train your employees on reiterating answers and reframing questions to ensure correct understanding is maintained while in discussions;
  • prepare and communicate a set of questions and documentation in advance of meetings to help with communication;
  • diversify your business planning team to be more representative of gender, age, experience and cultural diversity – you may find that a more heterogeneous group provides your firm with a deeper level of critical analysis and more robust business solutions;
  • reflect on your recruitment and retention strategies and the way you enable employees to engage with new clients;
  • broaden the scope and delivery of your marketing materials;
  • investigate the changing demographics of your local area; and
  • establish relationships with local cultural associations, community groups and the like.

A good business leader will use a range of skills and well-planned processes to help traverse potential cultural barriers and, in doing so, build a healthy cultural quotient which will assist in maintaining the best service possible for clients.

Ken Trass is the New Zealand Law Society’s Professional Development Manager.


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