As a foreigner in France, I can’t deny the unique challenges I face while networking. Where most of the networking literature I read in the past spoke from an American, English-speaking context, this is not always my case. I’ve learned a great deal from these texts, that’s for sure. However, since many would agree that language (both verbal and nonverbal) is the most important aspect in connecting with others, lack of language skills and cultural knowledge can render networking difficult—if not impossible.
When in a new country and speaking a different language, reservations around networking aren’t just matters of shyness but of competence and immense vulnerability. In Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris sums up the reality of most expats:
My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak.
I understand this feeling well, and for years it never felt any better. Even now that I speak French, I am still self-conscious about my faults or lack of certain vocabulary. And this consciously hindered some of the connections I tried to make. In my own way, I judged other people whom I thought would judge me for my French skills. If a person’s profile appeared very “French,” for example, I would avoid connecting with them, even if their job or experience seemed interesting.
Aside from basic language issues, I discovered the concept of high context cultures versus low context cultures. As an American, I come from the lowest context culture in the world. Everything is said explicitly and with intention, and being an effective communicator means being clear. My host country France, on the other hand, is a higher context culture relative to where I come from. In high context cultures, meaning is found “in between the lines”—things are implicitly stated and it is up to the listener to decipher meaning despite what is actually said. This has caused many misunderstandings and awkward social situations.
Seven days into my connection-building journey, I decided to go to a cocktail dînatoire in an effort to “get myself out there” and make more connections. I was waiting for a drink at a bar for what seemed like hours. Eager to get my glass to return to the group of people I had been talking with, I rushed to the other side of the bar where the server happened to be. Next to me was a nice enough looking Frenchman who replied “Après vous, madame” or “after you.” To my low context American ears, I interpreted this as him being nice and chivalrous and that he didn’t mind I ordered my drink first. After all, his voice seemed calm and pleasant, without a hint of sarcasm. It wasn’t until I looked back at the man, intending to give him a smile, that I saw his look of distain at my “bad manners”.
While it is true that everything can’t be explained with culture—we are individuals after all—it would be a mistake not to accord some attention to it. If you are going to succeed in connecting with others, especially in another cultural setting, it is to your benefit to respect and understand these cultural subtleties. Without trying to overgeneralize, culture can impact not just how a person speaks but how they behave as well.
Growing up, my mother always told me to “smile and say hello”. In American culture, being friendly, smiling—the more teeth the better—and shaking hands is common place. For the average person in a country such as France, a cheesy American smile is just that, something Americans do and if done by someone else can be perceived as fake. Instead, I’ve noticed that French people often greet each other with a more neutral face and a handshake, or the “bisous”— a”cheek kiss” that is the French equivalent of hugging in order greet someone.
It is important to understand how culture dictates your behavior and how you perceive the behavior of others to avoid an awkward or disrespectful social situation. Unfortunately, I found myself in many of these siutations over the years. When I first arrived in Paris, I was invited to a classmate’s birthday dinner. There were over 15 guests at the party, and they were all seated at a long table. I was excited to be there, approaching the table with a big smile, complemented by an overarching wave meant to cover introductions for every guest. After doing so, everyone at the table began to stand up while I began to sit down. With awkward looks on their faces, they all sat down too. It wasn’t until mid-course that I realized they were all expecting me to do the “bisous”.
Cultural considerations can also exceed language and find themselves in spatial situations, which is important to consider at networking cocktails or other social events. At a recent brunch, I connected with a friendly individual from southern Italy. Initially, I was surprised by how close she stood next to me, especially since we had just met. I didn’t realize that we just came from different “contact cultures.”
Just like high-context/low-context cultures, researchers have also grouped societies into “contact cultures.” As a descendant of a “non-contact” culture such as the United States, my “contact culture” acquaintance made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I adjusted my cultural perspective that I understood this spatial distance was normal for her and she was only showing her interest in the conversation.
It is important to not get lost in networking advice that ignores cultural considerations. Sure, many principals of networking are universal but other countries and societies have their own habits and customs—and the key to success in networking in these environments is learning these practices and applying them where necessary. Adjust your listening and speaking habits to your current context culture, and keep in mind spatial considerations when speaking to others, especially those you just met. A WORLD of opportunity awaits those who can think globally.
About Keenya, our networking expert
Originally from the United States, Keenya spent 3 years working as a teaching fellow in New York City, before moving to Paris on a whim! She recently received her Master’s degree in Corporate Social Responsibility and is now working as a CSR analyst at Publicis Groupe where she collaborates on Diversity & Inclusion projects and sustainability reporting. Since her arrival in Paris, Keenya has helped individuals make connections daily as co-organizer of Black Entrepreneurs & Friends – Paris, and is passionate about sustainable development and meeting new people. She is currently learning how to code at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers and will soon be releasing her first e-book, 30-Day Connect.
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