We live in a globalized world environment where we can instantly connect and communicate across borders at the touch of a button. Even if we never travel, our team members, customers and suppliers are increasingly international, from diverse cultural backgrounds, and for us to be successful, we have to know how to be effective with our cross cultural communication, to understand others’ point of view and their approach.
What is cross cultural communication?
First of all we have to understand that the way we do things and what we consider ‘professional’ communication styles and behaviour may be different from those we work with.
You may have even experienced this yourself when you have been dealing with people from different cultures and felt that what they were doing is unexpected, potentially frustrating and even, in extreme situations, rude.
The way we see what is ‘professional’ is not the same as others. We have filters, which are driven from cultural norms, that are built up over time from our cultural backgrounds, which includes national, ethnic, regional and generational influences, among others. These shape what we consider ‘the right way’ to do things in our work situations.
Why is cross cultural communication important?
Cross cultural communication is important because when we get it wrong, it can lead to all sorts of miscommunications and misunderstandings. At a simple level, this might lead to a small error that can be easily corrected, such as a misunderstanding caused by a language barrier.
However, there can be greater implications, including a build up of tensions and frustration between teams, that can lead to an engrained division and feeling of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that can slow project progress, wasting time and energy, and in the worst case scenario it can even stop projects being delivered altogether, impacting sales and profit.
In situations with external stakeholders, this might lead to not being successful in winning new contracts, working ineffectively with customers or suppliers, and damaging reputation and relationships which could lead to a loss of business.
Key challenges for effective cross cultural communication
Challenges stem from the assumption that everybody wants to be treated in the same way and the same approach with communication is what works best in the workplace.
The challenges may come about because individuals do not acknowledge that differences exist, take a one-size-fits-all approach and do not see the benefits of adapting their style, when required.
For others they do not feel confident in situations where they need to work with a diverse team from different cultures, and so actively avoid these situations or disengage from participating actively in multicultural contexts.
Maybe there is a lack of knowledge about what could be similar or different in other cultures, and what aspects to consider adapting.
Then there is a lack of planning, or adjustment in the situation itself, to adapt to what is happening in the moment to achieve a better result.
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Top ten tips for improving cross cultural communication
- Live by the Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule from Dr Tony Alessandra says : “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” This is different from what many of us learned growing up where we were taught to treat others how we would like to be treated. This important shift shows how to focus on how others prefer to communicate and interact to be more successful.
- Assume positive intent. For us to get away from the ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking, it’s important to assume the best of people, and that if we experience unexpected communication, then there is a driver we may not understand yet. This changes the conversation from ‘them’ and ‘us’, to exploring the ‘why’.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes we may not always know what is the right thing to say or how to adapt our communication in multicultural contexts. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, and know we don’t always know the best way to react or interact.
- Stay curious. You are now a social anthropologist, so pay attention and watch what happens in your meetings, and what can you learn about how people prefer to communicate and be communicated with. Ask open ended questions and listen actively. Do some research and explore the cultural values and norms of the cultures for the people you are working with. If you are not sure where to start, then the cultural values as defined by David Livermore in his book, Expand your Borders, is a great place to start.
- Knowledge is not enough. Yes, insights into cultural norms can be helpful, but you also need to know how to apply those insights by making a plan for your interactions, then observing what really happens in your meetings. Adjust your view of how people like to communicate as you go along. Norms can give us a first view, and then we need to use our eyes and ears to feel what is really going on and adjust how we interact.
- Small talk is cultural. Informal conversation and general chat isn’t comfortable for, or even valued, by everyone. This is a great example of cultural values at play, and how what may seem obvious and natural for one culture, is not for others. Be aware of how people react to small talk- how important is it to them? How much time in the meeting should you spend on it?
- Humour can cross borders, if it’s inclusive. Humour is a universal idea and can cross cultures, as long as we are mindful of making our humour inclusive and enjoyable for everyone, not just for a few insiders. Learn what works in humour for creating connection, so you bring warmth and connection to the conversation.
- Non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication. As Communicationtheory.org writes, non-verbal communication is open to misinterpretation, and even a nod of the head can mean ‘yes’ in some cultures and ‘no’ in others.
- Confirm understanding in writing. Written confirmation after a meeting can be important to ensure everybody took the same outcomes from the meeting and know what specific actions have been agreed and allocated to individuals. As Chrysos HR Solutions mention, even numbers can be misinterpreted across different regions, particularly important if we are discussing sales, budgets or profit.
- Be ready to adapt. There is no one perfect solution for every situation which guarantees success when communicating effectively in diverse teams or avoiding misunderstandings, so keep open minded, keep learning, adapt and learn, as MasterClass shares.
How can Culture Cuppa improve your team’s cross cultural communication
Victoria Rennoldson from Culture Cuppa is certified with the Cultural Intelligence Center to do CQ (cultural intelligence) assessments and training, using the globally validated CQ framework for building cultural intelligence capabilities.
With individual and team CQ assessments, you can learn how you and your team perform today with your CQ capabilities levels across 4 key criteria: your CQ Drive- your level of interest, persistence, and confidence during multicultural interactions, CQ Knowledge- your understanding of how cultures are similar and different, CQ Strategy- your awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions and CQ Action- your ability to adapt when relating and working in multicultural contexts.
Using this insight we can then build personalised strategies for you to start building your levels of CQ capabilities, work on how to adapt your communication style, so you can be more effective in your cross cultural situations.