Leadership Crossroads Newsletter

In Focus:  Becoming Comfortable
with Being Uncomfortable

Twenty years ago, after I had moved from Germany to the United States for the first time, it took me months until I finally stopped telling people how I was doing when they asked.

Think about this for a moment. Not an easy point to get, right?

When people said “How are you?,” my response may have been something like “Well, unfortunately I didn’t sleep all that well last night. Not sure why, really. Maybe I have a cold coming.” I’d ramble on, while my counterpart was probably looking at me thinking: “Why in the world is he telling me all this?

The answer? “Because you asked!

In the U.S., “How are you?” means nothing more than “Hello.” You are supposed to respond with something like “Fine, and you?,” which may in turn trigger a “Great, thanks.” Thereafter, you either both go your separate ways or start a ‘real’ conversation.

Contrast this with my native Germany or, for that matter, most other non-English speaking countries around the world: the local-language equivalent of “How are you?” is commonly an invitation to tell the inquirer how you presently feel. Not following this invitation tends to be considered rude. Responding with the equivalent of “Fine, and you?” could actually be interpreted as “Go away–I don’t want to talk to you.” Not an ideal way of making and keeping friends.

Mind you, I am no fool. I had known long before moving across the pond how the concept of “How are you?” worked in the U.S. Problem was, my brain and my feelings seemed unable to agree with each other over the right way to respond. Every time I said “Fine, and you?,” I felt like a jerk, like I was slapping the other in the face. My natural way of avoiding this feeling was to give the kind of responses I did. The instinct never fully waned, but I eventually realized it was a matter of respect to follow the local practice rather than insisting on my preference.
All of this taught me a lesson that stuck. It is a useful one for all cross-cultural interactions, whether you move to another country or just go there on a business trip: knowing about differences is not enough. You also have to be prepared to deal with these differences at an emotional level. It is crucial to ‘become comfortable with being uncomfortable.’

Make no mistake about how much you can change. I still cringe when at a Chinese banquet, the person next to me loudly slurps his or her soup, their way of saying that it tastes great. I still have an instinctive wish to back away when someone from Latin America stands much closer to me in a conversation than I like.

This is about more than mere differences in etiquette rules. I still feel under attack when an Israeli, a member of what is likely the most direct culture in the world, uses harsh words to critique a proposal I made. I still feel cheated when someone from Russia dishes up an obvious lie while negotiating, a tactic considered perfectly legitimate in that country. But no matter what the cross-cultural situation presents, I try hard not to let any of these emotions influence my behavior.
How do you go about learning to become comfortable with being uncomfortable? In my experience, it takes a fundamental decision, followed by extensive practice.

The decision is never to take things personally. Once you realize that the other’s behavior is neither inconsiderate nor otherwise inappropriate in their views, that the only issue between you is that theirs and yours are different, it becomes far easier to keep your cool and not let any such behaviors influence your own ones.

Practice means seeking exposure to the kind of experiences I described. It helps to remind yourself that showing respect for local practices is always an investment worth making. Your feelings of discomfort won’t go away, but you will eventually learn to find your balance and adapt to any situation.
Are you comfortable yet?

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Quarter
Culture and
Social Behavior


A valuable resource for those looking to acquire a deeper understanding of the value, and of the caveats, of studying behaviors across cultures.

(click title for full book review)



Video Of The Quarter
Cross-Cultural Negotiation


INSEAD professor Horacio Falcao gives insights into how to avoid the pitfalls when negotiating across cultures.

(click title to watch this video)



Quote Of The Quarter

The test of courage
comes when we are
in the minority.
The test of tolerance
comes when we are
in the majority.

Ralph W. Sockman




Leadership Crossroads
is a competent resource for

  • Global Business Training & Coaching
  • Global Negotiation Training and Assistance
  • Global Project Management
  • Organizational Learning and Development
    across Cultures
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Serving clients world-wide since 2004

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  • Can be spread over as little as two days and as much as two weeks.
  • Flexible schedules allow learners to get most of their normal work done.
  • Online access from anywhere facilitates multi­cultural learning.
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  • Newsletter informs learners of next steps.
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International Business

The Global   
Business Culture Guide

Negotiating International Business book

Kindle E-Book

The Global Business Culture Guide book

Kindle E-Book      

All 50 individual Country Sections from Negotiating International Business are available online for free. Download Country Section PDF files now.

Lothar Katz

Lothar Katz is the founder of Leadership Crossroads.  He has helped many clients achieve productive cooperation across cultures and drive business success on a global scale.
A seasoned global executive, he regularly interacted with employees, cus­tomers, out­sourcing partners, and third parties in numerous countries around the world.

Contact : info@leadershipcrossroads.com
Leadership CrossroadsSM, 2015

Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips for Doing Business in India

  • Slow down and allow ample time for local decision making. 'Time is money' is an alien concept for most Indians.
  • Be eloquent, but remain humble and respectful. Let people know you value them.
  • Share your ideas freely. Indians admire creativity and resourcefulness.
  • 'No' is not a good word to use in this country. Indians trying to let you know they don't like your proposal may still praise at least some aspect of it.
  • People tend to be on the serious side. Be careful when using humor - it may be counterproductive.
  • Know your stuff. In the U.S., managers are expected to know where to get information; in India, they have to know it themselves.
  • Indians like passionate bargaining and may be offended if you 'refuse to play along'.
  • Decisions are usually made at the top, with inputs from middle management.
  • Understand legal aspects well, but don't bring a legal counsel to the negotiation table. It will likely be read as a lack of trust.
  • The government still controls many aspects of doing business, and bureaucracy can be tedious. Prepare well.

Our newsletter is a quarterly publication about all aspects of International and Cross-Cultural Business Management.  Past issues can be found in our  newsletter archive.

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