Hosting an international multicultural meeting is a challenge. It’s also an opportunity to help bridge differences and promote cooperation. But such gatherings can easily go wrong, and problems like inadequate translation, serving the wrong kinds of food and drink, and even seating arrangements can lead to conflicts and disillusionment. It’s a good idea to follow basic etiquette, and to take into account different cultures and different ways of doing things.
When planning conference events, keep in mind that participants will bring diverse viewpoints. If you can treat these as a positive source of learning and collaboration, your conference will be a success. The best way to prepare is to start early, and ensure that all documents and conferences materials are professionally translated for all participants. You may also need escort interpreting, simultaneous translations and other professional interpreting to ensure smooth communications at all stages.
The Challenges and the Possibilities
Different cultures have different strengths, and an international meeting with multicultural participants is a chance to learn the best of each. It can be a tremendously productive encounter, but there are many possible pitfalls as well. In planning your meeting, it will be helpful to keep both of these in mind. Here are some dos and don’ts that will make your meeting a success.
Do: See Diversity as a Source of Strength
Learn about the different cultures that will be represented at the meeting and to view these differences as a source of strength. Encourage all participants to do the same.
Prepare conference-related materials well in advance and share with all participants. They should be professionally translated to ensure accuracy and clear communications.
Make sure that you have adequate translation and interpreting services available for all possible needs. These may include simultaneous translations during the meeting, escort interpreting for special guests or field visits, as professional translation of all conference documents.
Plan ahead to ensure that catering takes into account cultural and religious preferences in food and drink.
Different cultures have different styles of interaction, and many people will be hesitant to speak in front of an audience. During the meeting, the chair should ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak.
Do explicitly encourage team-building and cooperative brainstorming. Break up meeting sessions into small groups with participants from different countries to encourage discussion and participation.
Create opportunities for participants to interact within and outside the meeting framework. Plan for field visits, trips to local sights and cultural centers, or restaurants meals to provide informal settings for discussion and networking.
Don’t: Inadvertently Cause Offense or Hurt
When different cultures and viewpoints meet, there is always potential for conflict and misunderstandings. You can help to prevent this by foreseeing possible flashpoints and avoiding them.
Don’t include anything in the conference materials that can be offensive, denigrating or insensitive to any culture.
Don’t be too busy to establish personal contacts and relationships with participants, and encourage your staff to do likewise. These contacts will help you negotiate the tricky world of cultural misunderstandings if and when they do occur.
Don’t be afraid to set protocols for punctuality, meeting etiquette, participation, etc. While people may face cultural barriers to speaking up or contradicting others in public, remember that they’re aware that they have stepped outside their own comfort zones for a different experience. They are willing to adapt and learn, and that’s why they’re there in the first place.
Don’t force people to participate publicly if they are reluctant. Make sure they have other opportunities to provide their input and feedback and that this can be shared with other participants.
If you organize entertainment or outings for participants, make sure they don’t offend any cultural or religious values.
Don’t be afraid of a little conflict or if things don’t go according to plan. Be prepared for contingencies and also to accept that even if you have to modify your plans a little, your meeting will still be a success.
Don’t be too stressed out to enjoy the experience. Your own attitude will set the tone for the event, so remain cheerful and upbeat, and willing to learn.
Organizing a multicultural international meeting is a chance for you and all participants to learn and grow, to create new contacts and relationships and to launch new projects. With some planning and goodwill, you will succeed in all these goals.