Do a quick Internet search about personal sharing in the American workplace and you’ll quickly find the term “TMI,” the shorthand for “too much information.”
As executive coach and corporate trainer Peggy Klaus wrote in the New York Times, “Social media have made it the norm to tell everybody everything. The problem is that people are forgetting where they are (at work, not a bar or a chat room) and whom they’re talking to (bosses, clients, colleagues and the public, not their buddies). And even if they know it’s inappropriate to share certain personal information in a business setting, they do it anyway because everyone else does.”
This may seem true in United States; however, not everyone everywhere shares everything all the time. In today’s global business world, there are a number of issues that can divide us when working in a multicultural office place. Communication has always been a challenge because it varies from culture to culture.
It is not always appropriate to be forthright with personal information or be frank about emotions. The American Management Association advises, “When it comes to communication, what’s proper and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. In reality, no culture is right or wrong, better or worse–just different.”
Sometimes it can be difficult to separate business from personal. Ric Phillips, founder and President of Toronto-based 3V Communications Ltd., says, “People often engage in personal conversation to get closer to others, to build rapport and to build a bridge between work and friendships. Although this might sound like a good strategy to help grease the wheels of business, we also should look at the possible negatives that could come about from a habit of over-sharing.”
The key to cross-cultural success is to develop an understanding of, and a deep respect for, the differences. Here are some examples to guide you:
Canadians are generally more reserved than Americans and tend not to share personal information until a relationship is established. Avoid topics such as salaries, raises, one’s educational background or possessions (such as cars and houses).
In the United Kingdom, discussing personal wealth, possessions or success in business is not only frowned upon, but is often considered vulgar. Additionally, a person’s private life is considered private and not something typically shared in the workplace.
In China, Japan and Russia, there are many expectations about professional behavior in the workplace. Personal issues are rarely discussed. Japanese are notoriously private and reserved.
While it is appropriate to ask about the general health and wellbeing of family members of people from the United Arab Emirates, discussing specific family members is inappropriate. You shouldn’t inquire about how many children someone has or how a wife or daughter is doing.
Alternatively, Filipinos, Italians, Brazilians and Mexicans welcome conversation about family and personal backgrounds.
Before engaging with others in the workplace, be aware of whom you are speaking and take your cues from those around you. This will help you with communication across cultures and developing good workplace relationships.