Any corporation conducting business overseas needs to be attuned to the local culture they’re operating in or risk making costly blunders that can result in terminated partnerships, canceled deals, or offended workers. For U.S. companies engaging freelancers across borders, the same rules often apply—just often on a smaller scale.
Even if interactions with a remote freelancer only happen online, the delicacy of cross-cultural differences may still play a role. It’s up to you to be aware of those differences and the areas of business they might affect: agreements, deadlines, meetings, feedback, and general person-to-person conversations. And while the subject is vast—many corporations have months-long cultural training before launching business overseas—there are some general things to keep in mind when engaging a freelancer in a different country.
You won’t need to know every nuance of the culture you’re working with, but a little understanding can go a long way.
Speaking unspoken languages in a digital world
In our previous article “Cross-cultural Communication: How to Bridge the Gap with Remote Freelancers,” we covered two of the most important ways cultural differences can affect relationships with remote workers: the language of agreements, and the language of time. Agreements are a foundational aspect of working with freelancers—what the project entails, expectations, milestones, and the freelancer’s rate are all scaffolding for the relationship from day one. And time—when milestones are due, meetings, communication, punctuality, and how schedules are respected—is also central to a working relationship. More than anything, time can confer respect (or a lack thereof). In some countries, for example, it’s expected that a certain amount of time should be invested in developing a personal relationship before business is even discussed.
Knowing how different cultures approach these two unspoken languages is very helpful, and we’ll touch on both in a bit.
Decoding Cultural Dimensions
In our article Keeping Your Cross-cultural Hybrid Team in Sync, we discussed six dimensions of national culture from social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s model, the Hofstede cultural dimensions theory. The six dimensions address how cultures handle problems and questions and include: individualism versus collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance; masculinity versus femininity; long-term orientation; and indulgence versus self-restraint.
Insights from each dimension can be applied to work-related scenarios—how to approach things like authority, communication, negative feedback, problem-solving, punctuality, and personal relationships. With information from the Cultural Insights country comparison tool and Communicaid’s cross-cultural training guides, we’ll give you some practical information to apply to your next foreign freelancer engagement. Here’s a quick look at the cultural dimensions of five overseas countries that are well represented on Upwork: Ukraine, Russia, Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines.
Your First Meeting
The kick-off meeting is a crucial point in working with remote freelancers, and when you’ll likely make first impressions and establish expectations. You can prepare to speak confidently and comfortably with remote freelancers from different cultures in a few ways.
For example, Bangladeshi traditionally value establishing relationships on a one-to-one basis, so consider having your first meeting with them alone before introducing them to the rest of the team. Also, because they value face-to-face meetings, opt to use video chats when you can.
By contrast, freelancers from Russia and Ukraine may prefer a more direct approach to meetings with plenty of context and detail—in fact, sending any information you can prior to a meeting is often considered helpful. For developers in particular, clear documentation is a must. Try to be well prepared for meetings, and keep presentations and briefs clear and straightforward.
Relationship Building Blocks
Time is valuable almost universally, but in some cultures how it’s prioritized when it comes to business relationships is vastly different. Where casual conversation can seem like a waste of time in some cultures, in others that “getting to know you” chit chat isn’t just customary, it’s a sign of respect. For remote freelancers, in particular, it’s important to strive for the same personal rapport you’d cultivate with any other valued partner.
In the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh—similar to in the U.S.—taking time for small talk before jumping right into business matters is the way things are typically done. These are polite, courteous cultures and underestimating how important personal relationships are can be insulting. Asking questions and taking an interest in them helps builds trust. Individuals in Russia and Ukraine also tend to value candid, personal relationships and prefer they be established first.
In India, friendship can be characterized by casual criticism or speaking one’s mind. It’s possible for this assertive, straightforward characteristic to carry over into a working relationship, so don’t take it personally or be caught off guard. Be aware this is a sign of respect and not a lack of decorum.
The Client-Freelancer Dynamic
“Power distance” is a cultural dimension that helps inform our understanding of how different societies think about authority. When engaging a freelancer, you’re not “managing” them but you’re still their client, and it can be valuable to examine some of the nuances of how different cultures respond to superiors and management techniques.
As a baseline, let’s look at how Americans approach authority. Hierarchy is established for convenience: Superiors are accessible to share information, but much of the communication is informal. However, not all societies mirror that same approach. For the most part, these other cultures can be open to orders from above and reluctant to send any negative feedback up the chain. Traditionally, Indian culture places a greater emphasis on formal hierarchies, which may allude to India’s traditional caste-based Hindu culture. An Indian freelancer might have a more formal attitude toward you, even if you’re on a first-name basis.
Within the Bangladeshi workplace, senior officers and leaders are typically respected and expected to lead discussions and make final decisions. Similarly, Philippine culture is comfortable with organizational hierarchy and managers are expected to be decisive and assertive.
In Russia and Ukraine, it’s expected that the boss will demonstrate authoritative behavior, but it’s less appreciated between peers. Both cultures tend to value a good sense of humor, are very friendly, and open to a joking rapport.
In-person conversations are important for establishing relationships with remote workers. But in some cultures, how conversations begin, how long they last, and even what’s discussed can be very different. Many cultures share common traits: they’ll avoid being direct, avoid showing negative emotions, and tend to avoid the word “no.”
The U.S. can be more relaxed about communication than other cultures. We’re used to working with people we don’t know very well and don’t hesitate when approaching coworkers for help or information. Because we’re often expected to be self-reliant and display initiative, what might strike us as introverted is often quite normal in other cultures.
For example, in the Philippines workers often avoid being direct with their superiors, preferring to keep things positive and amiable. Along with people from India and Bangladesh, they may be reluctant to tell a client “no,” agreeing to additional work or a looming deadline even if they don’t have the bandwidth. They may avoid coming to you with problems, as well.
Avoid being vague or indirect to minimize miscommunication. And if you can connect via video, all the better—these cultures respond to positive body language and value context. When working with freelancers from the Philippines and Bangladesh, it’s important to read between the lines. Phrases such as “I will try” or “maybe” or “that might be difficult” may really mean “this cannot be done.”
Authority, Conflict, and Negative Feedback
We’ll bucket these three areas together because you’ll likely be the one in the driver’s seat when it comes to each. Talk to the freelancer about your expectations, hear how they prefer to receive feedback, and encourage open communication to resolve any conflicts that might arise. Regardless of culture, the clearer you can be, the better. Ambiguity and unstated agreements more often than not can set you up for difficulties in a cross-cultural working situation. More than cultural differences, these will tend to be unique to an individual, but some general awareness can be helpful.
Many cultures are more comfortable with a top-down model of instruction and feedback than is typical in the U.S. these days. In India and Bangladesh, for example, process and procedure are generally welcome and workers will often look to a superior for guidance. How feedback is delivered, however—especially when it’s negative—is an important consideration.
In all cultures, it’s preferred to give negative feedback in private rather than public. And while a culture like Russia might generally be more direct, that directness really only comes with more personal relationships. People in the Philippines and Bangladesh tend to avoid direct confrontation or displaying negative emotions in work environments. If something negative needs to be conveyed, try and impart that criticism constructively and not in front of others—reputation and self-esteem are important to both cultures. If feedback is too critical, it may have a demoralizing, demotivating effect.
In India, however, there’s an “acceptance of imperfection.” Workers there may place less value on everything going perfectly and tend to tolerate the unexpected. Note their use of the word “adjust,” which can mean a wide range of things—even finding an innovative way to solve an insurmountable problem.
While people from India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh may not be as comfortable giving superiors feedback, in Ukraine and Russia, developers in particular often won’t hesitate to offer suggestions or improvements.
The Currency (and Interpretation) of Time
Time can have different meanings between countries. In Latin American cultures, for example, being kept waiting before a meeting is not a sign of disrespect, but in the U.S. it can be interpreted to mean you’re a low priority. Knowing how a culture views time will help to prevent cross-cultural misunderstandings.
The Indian view of time is more elastic than it is in the U.S., and schedules can shift based on changing priorities. Views toward punctuality are more relaxed and delays don’t carry the same weight as they do in the U.S. When an Indian freelancer is vague about setting deadlines or meetings, it doesn’t mean they’re being evasive. This cultural norm, which has to do with accepting unforeseen circumstances, can be a positive trait when deadlines shift.
Like people in India, Filipino workers tend to have a similarly relaxed view of time and punctuality—something that dictates the pace of life both in and out of work. Note that while schedules may tend to be flexible, that doesn’t mean they’re not up for tackling tough work when it arises. Communicate those hard-and-fast deadlines and meeting times and you’ll likely get fast results.
By contrast, in Bangladeshi culture—similar to the U.S.—timeliness are appreciated and “time is money.” People are typically motivated to be busy and to work hard, and precision and punctuality are the norm.
In Ukraine and Russia, overtime and tight deadlines are not only doable, they’re welcome challenges—especially for engineers. Ukrainian developers are often willing to take on some overtime if the budget allows.
A Few More Things to Consider
When working with someone on the other side of the globe—or even just another coast—be sure to mind time zone differences. Always research where your freelancer lives to ensure you schedule meetings appropriately. Russia and the U.S. both span a few time zones, so it’s best not to make assumptions about where they’re located and make a scheduling gaffe.
Also, be aware of accents and dialects. Some Americans misinterpret heavily accented English as “bad English,” but that’s a mistake. For many Russian and Ukrainian IT professionals, learning English took a backseat to more fundamental disciplines like physics, programming, math, and chemistry—fields they excel in thanks to top-notch universities. Indian English can be heavily accented, but Indians in urban centers have a very high understanding of English.
Bottom line: Don’t mistake a heavier accent for a lack of skill or understanding.
It’s important to strike a balance between learning about the culture of an individual and learning about the individual themself—they may or may not reflect each other, and everyone is different. You might take general information like this to create a framework, but the only way to truly learn about a particular person—and make the most of your working relationship—is to ask questions and listen.