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Cultural interactions in business [throwback]

This session, we were all eyes and ears for Aisha Kothari. She works for Ernst & Young, but also runs her own company AISPI. Born in India and gone to school in the USA, she now works and lives in Belgium. She has quite a few tips and tricks up her sleeve on how to use cultural interactions in business in your own advantage.

Aisha Kothari | AISPI

“The end goal for a lot of people is to be successful in what they do. But there is more to it than perseverance or hard work. You also need a cultural fit, and that last one gets misunderstood a lot”, she starts off. Culture is not only who your parents are or where you grew up. It’s also the person that you are and the professional setting that you’re in.

“When I met my future husband, my mother made me list the pros and cons about him. When I was done, I expected her to give me tips in how to change the cons, but instead of that, she said: ‘You can’t go into relationships expecting people to change.’” Aisha always remembered that, because this is not only true for romantic relationships, but also for colleagues, clients …

Our current business world is virtual. We live in a world where boundaries don’t exist. 74 % of the companies are planning to shift their office work to a remote one, which means the competition is real! You can now compete against someone from the USA, India or South-Africa for the same job. This is scary, but the good thing is you can also apply for jobs at companies based in all these countries. Different cultures values certain things differently. Aisha led us through five major topics.

First up was office culture. Aisha: “People want to work with people they get along with.” You need to know what the office culture is. Do people talk about their private life for example? Then if you know, try to fit in. In our virtual world, we can’t meet for lunch to get to know each other, but you can always ask before a meeting how someone’s day was or how their family is doing. You need to connect. If your colleagues are open to follow each other on social media, do so. It might create a basic topic to talk about.

Next, Aisha spoke about timely communication. In the USA, where she started her career, it’s rather normal to e-mail with your boss after 10 PM. In India, people tend to use WhatsApp for professional communication. In Belgium, people use e-mail for formal communication and they have private and professional mobile phones, which give them more private time. It is essential to know how to communicate with your team, which way they prefer. Otherwise you won’t be able to reach them or get some work done.

Key in good communication is language. The right language means trust.

Communicating in the right way makes sure your team mates can trust you, even if you work remotely. Also, don’t forget some things are better said in person. Especially the so called ‘awkward conversations’ like talking about salary: use a Zoom-call or your phone.

When talking about punctuality and technical issues, Aisha admitted that the Indian Standard Time is a big cultural difference with the European time. In India, 8.30 AM can easily become 9 AM. This is not true in America, where everyone is super punctual because this is seen as a sign of respect. Aisha: “Being punctual and well-prepared is always correct, in any culture. Just don’t be late.”

And if other people are late, how do you react? First, you need to have their back when you know the bring more to the table. Second, don’t see technical issues as a sign of incompetence, for example bad Wi-Fi in certain regions.

Aisha also spoke of remuneration. Packages are tied to the region that you’re in. “In America, your salary is lot higher than in Belgium. But your rent is a lot higher, you don’t own a professional car or phone … You need to see the bigger picture. Do your homework and make sure the company you’re applying for knows you’re well-informed.”

If you’re a freelancer, try to figure out what the impact of your role is. Keep in mind there’s a lot of amazing talent in developing countries, people who work at a lower hourly rate. Don’t think: “This is what I’m worth and I do not accept any less.” Think: “What does my client need? If I can bring some extra value, how much is that extra value worth to my client?”

Finally, Aisha taught us about the cultural differences when it comes to job positions and titles. Job positions help us to know what to say to whom and how. It’s about how to give respect. For example: in the USA, you can easily go for drinks with your big boss. In Belgium, it depends on the company whether or not you can address him or her with his or her first name. Aisha: “Knocking on doors before entering, asking the secretary if his or her boss is available, starting a conversation with ‘Can I occupy a couple of minutes of your time…’ are things that helped me. You can’t go wrong with that.”

Aisha also gave a couple of tips and tricks from her own experience. For example, unpaid internships are often not what you’re looking for when you want to apply for a job. “Make a list of pros and cons. If the pros outweigh the cons, then why you shouldn’t you do it?” During an internship, but also outside the company, you need to invest in relationships. They are great to help you forward in life. “You never know who is going to be important to you later on.” In this virtual world, written communication is more important than ever. “Be careful how you present yourself. People forgive, but don’t forget.”


“Make a SWOT-analysis for yourself and discover your personal brand. Then create an elevator pitch from yourself. This way you’ll keep evolving.”

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