Success as a global real estate professional requires sensitivity to cultural differences, without turning generalizations into harmful stereotypes. Learn as much as you can, then act with sincerity and respect.
Peaches versus Coconuts
There are significant cultural differences in how quickly individuals are willing to open up to one another, including what is considered public versus private information. To understand the differences, consider “peach” versus “coconut” cultures, a theory developed by social scientist Kurt Lewin.
People from the U.S., for example, are very comfortable smiling at strangers and engaging in personal conversations with new acquaintances. It’s a peach culture, where it’s quite normal to be chatty and open—people are frequently “soft” during initial contact.
Beyond pleasant public interactions, however, members of peach cultures still protect their private selves—the hard pit in the middle. In addition to the U.S., other examples of peach cultures are Mexico, Brazil, and Chile.
This behavior can be quite unsettling to members of coconut cultures, which are “harder” to penetrate from the outset. Private topics are reserved for close relationships after trust is formed. Switzerland, Russia, Germany, and Sweden are all examples of coconut cultures.
If you’re from a peach culture, understand that someone from a coconut culture may view your open, friendly style as inappropriate, or an attempt at trickery. It’s not that coconut cultures aren’t willing to cultivate warm relationships—it just takes time and respect.
Peaches and coconuts aside, face-to-face networking at receptions is an essential aspect of cultivating global business, especially for CIPS designees interested in meeting real estate professionals from other cultures and attending various international events.
Regarding cocktail receptions, consider these observations from consultant and social theorist Richard Lewis, drawn from his book, When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures:
Chinese and Russians, more accustomed to large seated dinners, are often less comfortable shuffling around from group to group of noisy strangers.
Americans, with their mobile nature and easy social manners, typically excel at small talk.
Australians and Canadians are often familiar with formulating strategies for meeting new arrivals, which makes cocktail conversation easier.
The British and the French are long-time experts in small talk at receptions.
The Japanese, masters of polite trivia among themselves, may feel less confident engaging in similar small talk with foreigners.
Germans are very willing to have long, soul-searching conversations with close friends, but see little point in trivialities and platitudes with complete strangers.
Mexicans, Peruvians, Argentinians and other Latin American cultures “never run out of steam” at cocktail gatherings.
Of course, you should never assume that Lewis’ interpretations of cultural differences are “absolutes” that apply equally to every member of a culture. To the contrary, it’s much more important to appreciate that every person is shaped by their culture— and there is much to learn and celebrate in these differences.
While receptions lend themselves to non-stop chatter, silence is another aspect of cross-cultural communication that warrants closer examination. Writing for RW3 CultureWizard, Carrie Shearer explains the difference between silence in “speaking cultures” versus “listening cultures.”
Listening cultures include Asian and Nordic countries, where silence denotes careful thought. In these cultures, conversational pauses keep the exchange calm, or may be used to help everyone to save face.
Speaking cultures, including many Western countries, see silence as a lack of engagement in the conversation or even disagreement. Members of these cultures may jump in to fill the silence and ease their discomfort.
On top of these fundamental differences, it can be challenging to decode silence in various situations. For example, if the senior member of a Japanese group closes his eyes during a presentation, it may signal agreement with the speaker—or an unwillingness to publicly disagree.
What’s the best way to handle the situation? Shearer recommends slowing down your speech, streamlining any complicated language, and avoiding idioms. You might then try asking a question to confirm understanding.
Keep in mind how difficult it is to speak or write in a language not used on a daily basis. Clients may need time to consider a question, frame an answer, and translate their thoughts before responding. Silence also plays a role in hierarchical cultures, where the senior or oldest person does the talking and others are expected to remain silent unless asked to contribute or corroborate information.
Communication is a two-way street, requiring solid speaking and listening skills. In cross-cultural interactions, the listening side of the equation is particularly indispensable.
Some cultures are instinctively better listeners than others. When cultures cross, everyone benefits from active listening skills. Pay careful attention to what is said, what isn’t said, and other non-verbal cues.
Active listening takes effort and practice, but it’s the best way to enjoy the many rewards of interacting with other cultures and cultivating a global real estate practice.
If you work on a team, make sure clients from high-context cultures have opportunities to meet and grow comfortable with everyone who will play a role in the transaction.