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Navigating multicultural hazards

In globalised business environments such as that of the UAE, people are used to standard business etiquetteImage Credit: Supplied

In places like the UAE, it is hard to know from where exactly many people are coming, and even when you do, you may find it difficult to figure out what their roots mean in terms of cultural differences. Showing courtesy in many cases can be easier achieved by simply avoiding coming up with gestures or comments on the spot, especially when you’re in a job interview.

That is because many people make stereotyping mistakes when they base comments and body language on the little information they draw from the person’s appearance, accent, name, etc. This sort of profiling can be offensive or humorous based on how the recipient takes it. And although you should consider taking cultural differences into consideration when you’re in an interview or at work, going the extra mile to express your courtesy in a language that you’re not good at or a gesture that you don’t fully know can actually backfire.

In addition, there is another challenge that comes with many people who are from multicultural backgrounds and one stereotype is far from who they are. Looking only at their name, skin colour or nationality may put totally on the wrong path, if these people have grown up in a multicultural environment or grown up away from their home countries.

Here are a few points to keep in mind when you interview with people from different cultures.

Focus on the interview

Remember you’re the one who is being interviewed. Some small talk to break the ice can be nice, but you should never take the interview time to talk about your interviewer. If a background question comes up as far as you’re concerned, your answers should be focused — as much as you’re comfortable — on your own cultural background. You should show the relevance of your points to the position you’re applying for. Remember employers are expected not to discriminate, so they probably will be treading lightly around this topic, if it comes up.

In addition, your questions during a job interview appear to be the most points to you. If you begin to question your interviewers about their ethnic origins or cultural backgrounds, you may place unneeded importance on this area. A hiring manager may get concerned about your ability to get along with people from certain cultures.

Don’t make mistakes

Although you may know that some cultures have a whole different set of manners, you probably are not well-versed in these manners unless you’ve been to those countries for more than a causal business trip or visit. Using the wrong greeting can be offensive and so is saying a comment that is inaccurate or shifted to a different meaning.

Why should you run such a risk? In reality, there is really no gain. In globalised business environments such as that of the UAE, people are used to just using standard business etiquette. If you follow the interviewer’s lead, you should be just fine.

For example, if you’re unsure whether you should shake hands with a female manager? Just let her initiate the handshake or not. You think that you and an interviewer may be speaking a common language — other than English — because both of you seem to be coming from the same area in the world, just wait to see if the other person brings it up.

Err on the safe side

Don’t just volunteer to make a comment based on your cultural-related assumptions. For example, you’re visiting a company during Ramadan and your interviewers seem to be Europeans, don’t assume that no one is fasting. Similarly, don’t assume that someone who prefers to speak Arabic doesn’t know English or another second language. Many times, people make the wrong assumption and end up saying or doing something that offends others.

Remember you’re trying to make the best impression. How far would this cultural bonding moment help you? Probably not much. If you do say “how are you?” correctly in German or in Urdu, your interviewer may appreciate your effort and move on to business. There are probably many more important criteria that are more relevant to the job and must be checked at this stage.

Source: Rania Oteify, Special to Gulf News

The writer, a former Gulf News Business Features Editor, is a Seattle-based editor.