7 tips for talking politics across cultures      

Talking politics among friends is one thing. But what should you do in a business situation? More to the point, in a cross-cultural business situation?

In some countries, political discussion is welcomed. Israel, for example. Israelis don’t care to discuss the niceties of the weather. You can sit down at a bar, alone, and within minutes, be straight into an enjoyable political debate with the person next to you. Israelis are informed and opinionated – but they will listen to your point of view.

On the other hand, if you were to walk into a meeting or a business dinner in Japan and start ranting about politics, you would be met with a shocked and embarrassed silence. Why? Because Japanese society strives to maintain harmony. Getting aerated about politics will cause both you and your Japanese counterpart to lose face. If you know someone very well and really want to discuss politics, you need to see them as a partner in your discussion; someone with whom you can politely exchange views, rather than an adversary in a debate.

In Latin America and Brazil, politics is a sensitive subject. While relationship-building is an important part of the culture here, locals might become defensive if you launch into a political discussion, particularly if you mention taboo or stereotyping topics like corruption or violence. Nobody likes a ‘gringo’ who assumes they know better than a local.

In the Netherlands, expect a free and frank debate about politics if you want one but do not be surprised if your counterpart is better informed than you are, even about your own country. Disagreement over politics in the Netherlands is a sign that you are involved in the conversation, rather than simply being bombastic, although you should, of course, strive to keep the discussion polite.

Similarly, Russians tend to love a heated political discussion; again, it’s a sign to them that you are involved in the relationship, rather than just making small talk. Just be aware that many Russians feel they are misrepresented by the Western media – and they are often extremely well informed, so make sure you know what you are talking about.

Wherever you are in the world, even in your own workplace, there are some points worth considering before entering a political debate with business contacts and colleagues.

  1. First, know your facts. Don’t just regurgitate sound bites you’ve heard or seen on social media. If you find yourself out of your depth and want to save face, simply say something like “That’s really interesting. Thank you. I intend to read up on this.”
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask. A foreign business contact may be flattered if you ask them politely to enlighten you on their country’s political situation. You might learn something about their country; and you can quietly assess the individual at the same time.
  3. Ditch the win-lose mentality. In the workplace, you should be trying to build a relationship, not destroy the other person in a debate.
  4. Understand your triggers. Certain topics can give rise to a discussion that gets more emotional than is appropriate with business colleagues – topics like race, or religion, or women’s rights, or immigration. Sometimes, like it or not, the business relationship needs to come first and feelings need to be reined in.
  5. Remember that not everybody thinks like you. Business contacts and colleagues may have deeply personal reasons for feeling the way they do that are way beyond your comprehension, based on belief, financial circumstances, family history, or just a bad personal experience.
  6. Do not let it get personal, especially in a business situation. Wherever you are in the world, if a personal comment about your political views (“You’re so liberal/ignorant/out of touch”) feels like an attack, back off and change the subject.
  7. Finally, know when to bow out. If you find yourself out of your depth, or in danger of damaging an important relationship, or getting frustrated, simply smile and say “I’ve enjoyed our discussion but let’s just agree to differ” and again, change the subject.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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