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5 Cross-Cultural Mistakes We Make on Zoom

5 Cross-Cultural Mistakes We Make on Zoom

Do you ever wonder how you come across on video calls with colleagues from different countries and cultures? Do you question if these calls are effective?

Many people underestimate how cultural differences play out on Zoom calls, virtual Skype meetings, and quick FaceTime check-ins. The hard truth is: video calls don’t reduce cultural differences—they amplify them. With such a limited number of perceptual cues available, video calls often intensify the effect that cultural differences have on your ability to establish trust, earn credibility, and communicate with colleagues from cultures other than your own.

Here are the five most common cross-cultural video call mistakes, and how to avoid them.

Sitting too Close (or too far) from the Screen

When we communicate in person, we naturally move closer or farther from a person based on the distance that feels most natural. This social distance is a cultural norm, and it’s rooted in how we were socialized. Some cultures prefer a wide social distance, and others prefer to speak at a close range. If you’re too close, you may come off as overly intrusive. If you’re too far, you may appear aloof.

The same is true for video calls. Adjust your seat to match the distance of other call participants so you don’t feel too close (or too far) from people on the screen.

Not Mirroring Eye Contact

On a Zoom or Skype call, looking into the camera is akin to making direct eye contact. In some cultures, eye contact is a sign of trustworthiness and confidence. However, in other cultures, it’s a sign of aggressiveness.

What is the best rule of thumb for video calls? Maintain the same level of eye contact as others on the call. If your goal is to make eye contact, remember to look at the camera—not the screen.

Mismatched Formality

In this past year, we’ve all grown accustomed to video conferencing with colleagues in their homes—seeing them dressed casually, hearing their dogs barking, kids yelling, dinners cooking, and more. For cultures long-known for a relaxed style (such as the United States), the change to working from home has amplified informality. For example, Americans are more comfortable eating during Zoom meetings, wearing athletic wear, and displaying playful video call backgrounds. One American colleague even joined a video call I was on recently wrapped in a towel! She had just finished a swim, so she thought, “Why not?”

But this level of informality, while seemingly practical or efficient, can seem rude to those from cultures who view formality as a sign of respect. Do your best to match your attire, call backdrop, and background setting to those of others on the call.

Interpreting Silence and Interruptions

In some cultures, silence demonstrates that you’re being thoughtful and are engaged in what’s being conveyed. Yet in other cultures, silence means the opposite: that you’re disinterested. You can sense this most notably when internet bandwidth problems create audio stutters and digital pauses that feel awkward. It breaks the cadence of your natural comfort with silence.

Before your next video call, take some time to understand how the attendees use silence. If you’re from a culture that uses silence to say, “You have my full attention,” you might need to “jump in” faster when in conversations with those who leave little silence. If you’re from a culture that “jumps in” and interrupts conversations to signal, “Yes, I’m listening and interested!” you might need to pause and allow for some unfilled airtime.

The Wrong Amount of Small Talk

When we’re interacting with business colleagues in person, it’s natural to have non-work conversations (even if it’s just a casual inquiry about the weather). Before the pandemic, when we went into the office or traveled to visit clients, we’d form person-to-person bonds based on shared interests and life experiences.

In some countries and cultures, stable work relationships form after minimal social interaction, while in others, work partnerships form only after relationships are solidly built.

This means that in video meetings, people from more transactional cultures will want to move directly to the agenda (small talk is superfluous!), while people from relationship-oriented cultures will engage in non-work conversation to create a connection and build trust. Understand this difference before you start the meeting, and adjust the amount of time you spend in non-work conversation accordingly!

A video call with a colleague from another culture requires only thirty seconds to set up. Yet with this ease and speed, we lose the tangible reminder that we’re actually “in” a different culture. It’s important to take the time to learn about others’ cultural norms and, when possible, pattern your behavior to the expectations of those on the call. It’s the cultural norms that will influence how you’re perceived (and how you perceive others) during video calls.

How culturally agile will you be on your next Zoom call? Take a free online assessment at www.myGiide.com.


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by Paula Caligiuri // Paula Caligiuri is a D'Amore-McKim School of Business Distinguished Professor of International Business at Northeastern University and president of TASCA Global, a consulting firm that specializes in assessing and developing culturally agile professionals. She has a new book, Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals, and offers a free web tool to assess cultural agility at myGiide.com.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.