How Much Is Too Much: Sharing Personal Details In Multi-Cultural Business Settings

There are a time and place for everything. The workplace isn’t always the best place for personal information to be shared, yet an executive coach and corporate trainer Peggy Klaus wrote in the New York Times, “Social media have made it the norm to tell everybody everything. The problem is that people are forgetting where they are (at work, not a bar or a chat room) and whom they’re talking to (bosses, clients, colleagues, and the public, not their buddies).”

Americans tend to be much more casual in the workplace. Even if they are aware that it may be inappropriate, people tend to share personal information at work because they find that others are often doing the same thing.

In today’s global business world, there are a number of issues that can divide the United States from other countries when working in a multicultural office place. Communication has always been a challenge because it varies from culture to culture. But Americans should understand that it is not always appropriate to be forthright with personal information or be frank about emotions.

What may seem correct in one culture may, in fact, be ineffective or offensive in another. While no culture is right or wrong, better or worse, it’s just different, and Americans doing business with other cultures or in different countries need to be aware of what they say or do.

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate business from personal life. In the U.S., it’s commonplace for people to engage in personal conversation as a way to bond, get closer, build rapport, and to build a bridge between co-workers and friends. Although this might sound like a good strategy, it’s important to look at the possible negatives that could come about from a habit of over-sharing.

The key to cross-cultural success is to develop an understanding of, and deep respect for, the differences. Here are some examples to guide you:

Canadians are generally more reserved than Americans and tend not to share personal information until a relationship is established. Avoid topics such as salaries, raises, one’s educational background or possessions (such as cars and houses).

In the United Kingdom, discussing personal wealth, possessions, or success in business isn’t just frowned upon, it usually considered vulgar. Additionally, a person’s private life is deemed to be private and not something shared in the workplace.

In China, Japan, and Russia, there are many expectations about professional behavior in the workplace. Personal issues are rarely discussed. Japanese are notoriously private and reserved.

While it is appropriate to ask about the general health and wellbeing of family members of people from the United Arab Emirates, discussing specific family members is inappropriate. For example, one should never inquire about how many children someone has or how a wife or daughter is doing.

Alternatively, most Filipinos, Italians, Brazilian, and Mexicans welcome a conversation about family and personal backgrounds.

Before engaging with others in the workplace, be aware of whom you are speaking, and take your cues from those around you. This will help you with communication across cultures and developing good workplace relationships.

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