Thomas Friedman told us the world was flat in 2005, but just like the general public in Christopher Columbus’ time, it takes a little while for everyone to catch on.
If you are working with global colleagues as a freelancer, you already have a taste of just how massive the world is and how people can work together. There seem to be no limits to the amount of collaboration that can happen across countries all over the world.
However, some people still hold on to a lot of behaviors that look much more like a pre-flattened world.
Here are five things you shouldn’t say to international colleagues – unless you enjoy looking like a global barbarian.
1. “Wow, Your English is Great!”
While English isn’t the standard language of 100% of international business, most people engaged in the global economy have a decent grasp on it. Many people even in non-English commonwealth countries have grown up with English as a first language. Even more have studied English as a second language since they were five years old. Complimenting someone’s English is often seen as being patronizing and/or oblivious.
2. “I Can’t Imagine What it’s Like Over There.”
This one is usually a bit more subtle, but there can be a hint of pity detected when talking to someone from a different country – especially if they are from the developing world. It makes it sound like if you don’t have the option of drive-thru fast food and big-box retailers, you must live a very unfulfilled life.
Most people around the world like where they live and don’t appreciate these remarks. Even though you likely don’t mean it in such a way, it sounds quite condescending.
3. “Are You Anywhere Near Tokyo?”
As a member of the global workforce, your geography could likely use a little brushing up. Africa is continent, not a country. India is not in the Middle East, and in fact it has 53 cities with over one million people. The Philippine Islands are not by Japan, and the largest city is Quezon City near Manila.
When you start to work with someone from another country, brush up on some basic geography (borders, population, cities) before you say something that you’ll regret.
4. “Have You Ever Eaten Beef?”
Generalizations can be useful for drawing certain patterns about a large population. However, applying those patterns to individuals is stereotyping. Assuming every Indian you meet doesn’t eat beef, or that every Russian likes vodka, or that every Australian lives in the bush is just bad manners.
Rather than putting a stereotype onto an individual, gently inquire about the generalization instead. I’ve heard that a lot of Indians don’t eat beef – is that true?
5. “Do You Work with a Lot of Arabs?
Show caution when using a term about people that could be very sensitive. In this example, the term “Arab” refers to a large pan-ethnic group of people with a common connection to the language of Arabic. However, some people use it to describe anyone from “the Middle East,” which itself has very diverse borders depending on whom you are talking to. Be sensitive about the terms you use when you talk to people and be willing to be corrected.
No one wants to be intentionally disrespectful to another person, but sometimes a lack of awareness and knowledge and leave you looking like you are still doing business in the 1950s. You can’t avoid every cultural pitfall, but you can educate yourself about the places where your colleagues work.
Take it as a chance to learn something new about the world!