Updated: Aug 31, 2021
Note from Jenn: Although I usually try to write for a broader audience, this blog is intended for Americans. Consider it a "family chat," that we need to have here in the US.
That being said, if you live outside the US, I'd love to hear your feedback! Anything you'd want to add? Or, anyone you think needs to read this??
"The key donor event will be on 5/11; it'll be perfect for the onset of summer! Let's chat about that tomorrow."
Say it's 5 pm on a Wednesday when this email hits your in-box. How do you read that sentence? If you're like me, an average American living in the US, you read it as:
Heck yeah! May 11, just as summer is getting started! That's a great time to host a donor event!
And, since I'm reading this at 5 pm, in California, on a Wednesday, I know that "tomorrow" means Thursday.
Here's the hiccup: for a lot of the world, those sentences read so very very differently. How?
Say I live in South Africa, that same sentence would read:
Heck yeah! 5 November, just as summer is getting started! . . . In the southern hemisphere!
And since I'm at least 9 hours ahead of the California time zone, this email hit my in-box at 2 a.m., so guess what: When I wake up and see this email, "Tomorrow" means "Friday!"
Think there might be a misunderstanding? Uh... yeah. You better believe it.
While working with teams around the world, we can inadvertently create barriers to communication and collaboration by using our default phrases and approaches. There are certainly more than these, but I've found that making these seven small adjustments to my communication and interactions in meeting have opened new doors to collaboration with my colleagues.
These are really small adjustments, but I'll dig into why it's important to:
Pay attention to date formats
Avoid referring to seasons for milestones
Avoid the potentially confusing term: "tomorrow"
Run like mad from discussions about Covid and the Covid vaccine
Pay attention to holidays
Think outside of your own time zone
Now, when we don't follow these norms, our gracious, wonderful colleagues around the world often translate our seasons and dates into their context. But that's not the best way to collaborate and ensure clarity in communication. It's also, honestly, a bit disrespectful.
Let me be frank: We here in the US don't always have the most positive reputation around the globe. Now, you, personally might be a very enlightened, globally conscious person who is keenly aware that our experiences here in the 21st century America aren't mirrored around the world.
But that is not always how we're perceived.
You can't change the world's perceptions, but you can be more intentional about how you engage with your global colleagues in a way that respects them and shows that you are keeping them in mind – even in the little things.
Taking a few moments to adjust a few words and phrases can speak volumes. Here are some things you can do to collaborate more respectfully and effectively with colleagues from around the world:
1. Avoid writing dates in a number format
Most of world writes dates in this format: Day/Month/Year. That can cause confusion when we default to our US-standard of: Month/Day/Year.
This means that if I write that a deadline is coming up on 5/6, in the US, that's May 6, but it can also mean 5 June in other places. If I'm telling you that my birthday is 30/9 – my date is pretty clear. But if I say my anniversary is 11/2, it can be read two different ways.
So, to avoid confusion, take the few extra micro seconds to write out the month: Writing "June 2" doesn't take much longer to type than 6/2, and it'll avoid a heck of a lot of confusion!
2. Don't use seasons for events or milestones
In presentations or even in passing comments, avoid terms like: "Coming this summer." Where it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter in the Southern, and vice versa! And get this: The four seasons themselves are not universal either! Some countries have rainy and dry seasons rather than summer and winter.
So, just skip the seasons altogether. If you can't commit to a specific month, and you need to provide a ballpark time frame, consider options like this:
"Coming in mid-2022"
"Coming around June" or even
"Available in CY Q2"
3. Covid and vaccines and Delta, oh my!
Now, this is super relevant, but also insanely touchy.
Here in the US, we may have different opinions on vaccines and whether we should get them, but there's no doubt we have access to the vaccine if we want it. Right now, we also have this wonderful ability to travel–even to other countries!
This is not the case for a huge portion of the rest of the world.
So when you're in meetings, intentionally avoid these kinds of conversations:
Whether you got the vaccine
Whether your colleagues have gotten the vaccine
Assuming the whole team can get together for an in-person gathering
Alluding to your recent trip to Italy, Mexico, or France. Some people can't leave their country at all! You don't need to proactively bring this up.
At this point, discussing these topics is often unnecessary, and can really instill some bitterness in your colleagues, which they may never tell you, but it can affect collaboration and good rapport.
4. "Tomorrow": I do not think that means what you think it means
Don’t say “meeting tomorrow,” because you may send it in your evening, but someone else won’t see it until their morning… um... the following day.
Use days of the week instead. This way, the day you're intending to meet will be super clear.
Sidebar recommendation: Unless the context is crystal clear, just ditch "next week" all together and write out dates or date ranges. For some people "next week" means the week after the one we're currently in. But for others, "next week" means the week after that one! (For the record, those people are nuts, but... it's still respectful to keep them in mind. )
5. Holidays can be tricky
Let me state this right up front: the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are not, in fact, world-wide holidays.
Neither is Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran's Day, Flag Day, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Don't assume your colleagues will be taking those days off, and don't wish them a "Happy 4th!" (In fact, your colleagues in the UK may tell you that 4 July is associated with the “American Colony Rebellion,” so . . . yeah. Different sides of history create different filters, my friends!)
You can even take this one step further: Find out when their country's national holidays are and put them on your calendar! Don't schedule calls when you know they have a national holiday. Better yet, wish them a happy holiday, and ask them if they're taking any additional time off.
They will truly appreciate you taking their context to heart!
6. So... many ... time zones... (head explosion)
Let me be frank: if you have a team spread literally around the globe, this is hard! The coordination and communication are both tricky.
Let's start with communication: When you want to schedule a call for 2 pm ET, it becomes really painful to write out all the time zone endings for everyone on the call:
Hey everyone! Does 5 pm MT / 1 HST / 9 am AEST (the next day) work for you?
Let me introduce you to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Referencing UTC allows you to write times more cleanly, and then each person can figure out what time that is wherever in the world they are. So, instead of the above fiasco, you can simply write:
Hey everyone! Does UTC + 23:00 work for you?
I love using the Circa app, myself. It's a super simple design that shows me the times not only in different time zones I designate, but also gives me the UTC time to put into emails, agendas, and notes. Another tool you can use is the Meeting Planner (timeanddate.com). You type in the different cities you want to include, and you'll get a view of what the time means for them!
Now, the hardest part—coordination.
Coordinating a team call between, say, California, Australia, and London? That's no joke. Someone is either not going to make it or be really grouchy that they have to.
One friend in Australia is consistently asked by Americans to meet at 2 am her time. That's crazy! Don't do this to your teammates! A few suggestions to help you navigate this:
Try to break up meetings into time zone clusters that aren't too bad. Personally, a 9-10 hour time zone span is about my limit, but given that some people are morning people and some are night owls, you might have some wiggle room there.
If you really have to connect across more time zones than that, and there really is no sweet spot for the meeting attendees (which happens!), rotate who has to be in pain. Don't make the same person always draw the short stick.
One friend of mine has what she calls "sacred hours." Even for the most important projects she will not do any work between 1 am and 4 am. Ever. For really really important things she may start at 4 am or end at 1 am, but those are few and far between.
Determine your own boundaries around when you are willing to meet and for what reasons.
7. Get a WhatsApp account.
Lastly... and this one is so crazy easy. Install WhatsApp! WhatsApp has been around since 2009, and it's as easy as texting (and includes a desktop app). It also doesn't matter in what country your phone number is grounded. You can text anyone around the world as simply as you'd text on your phone.
It's been a global communications tool for much longer than Slack, and it tells your global colleagues: I'm ready to meet you on your turf and not force you onto mine.
These seven things have helped me communicate and coordinate with my clients in many places around the world. I've learned the lessons the hard way, so hopefully this will save you a bit of pain and embarrassment!
Lastly, a bonus suggestion: Challenge yourself to read news outside the US.
Get to know what's going on in the countries (or at least the continents) where your team members live. You can go to international news sites or simply go to "world" in your preferred news app. Or heck: just google the country name and click on "news!"
Now, if you don't work with global teams or people outside your own country (or even your own time zone), then great! I'm happy for you! Say those seasons with confidence! Write those numeric dates! Have a blast!
But if even one person is outside the US, or if your presentation could possibly be shared outside the US . . . these small changes speak volumes.