Avoid Cross-Cultural Communication Snafus

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Messages often get “lost in translation”—literally and figuratively—during cross-cultural communication. When talking or writing to clients, colleagues and competitors from different cultural backgrounds, we often find ourselves in communication snafus. Sometimes the receiver of the message fails to understand the message or, worse, assumes a contrary meaning. In other words, client communication techniques that work in Shanghai don’t necessarily work in Sydney or Salzburg.

Communication is key to the success of the attorney-client relationship. How can law firms and individual lawyers ensure that their messages accurately cross the cultural divide? How can they trust that their meaning is understood as intended? Here are some strategies to maximize the effectiveness of your cross-cultural client communication.
Make Every Client Communication Count

Every kind of communication—from legal bills to cocktail party conversation—is an important client cultivation opportunity. Before sending out a bill, letter or memo, or before speaking to a client at a meeting or social event, a lawyer should ponder, “How can I communicate with this particular client in a culturally sensitive way?”

Not long ago in London, I led a panel discussion about cross-cultural client development for the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law. During the panel discussion we shared our client communication strategies in different cultural contexts. One panel member was Cyndee Todgham Cherniak, a lawyer with Lang Mitchner’s Toronto office who works in China so often that she has even secured a local cell phone number comprised of “lucky numbers.” Before each trip abroad, she reviews a little tip sheet she has prepared, reminding her of things to bring (lots of extra business cards) and appropriate ways to greet and interact with Chinese clients.

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