Cross Cultural Communication Strategies
— October 12th, 2021
Communicating effectively across cultural divides can be a challenge for organizations. The key is to bring the communication back to basics and establish a baseline where a common understanding exists. Here are our tips for keeping the lines of communication open in a multicultural workplace.
Three key communication lessons for managing a crisis
Top tips for establishing effective cross-cultural communications
In today's society, most workplaces will be populated with employees from different countries and cultures. And while language barriers can often be the most obvious stumbling block to effective communication in this environment, it's important not to dismiss the existence of cultural differences and the impact they can have on a productive workplace.
In fact, a 2016 Culture Wizard global survey revealed that 68% of respondents reported that cultural challenges were the biggest hurdle to global virtual team productivity and 18% of respondents said that their companies have lost business opportunities because of cultural misunderstandings.
So what tactics should you use to ensure all relevant parties share a common understanding?
Practice active listening
Active listening is a vital step in developing successful cross-cultural communication in the workplace. By actively listening to the speaker you can establish trust and build a relationship as they know you are really listening to what they are saying.
- It's important to focus completely on the speaker, give them your full attention. This is especially important when you are speaking with a non-native English speaker.
- It's a good idea to paraphrase elements of the conversation and repeat them back to the speaker. This provides two benefits: it shows that you're listening and also ensures you've understood the conversation.
- If you're struggling to sense the tone of the conversation, look for non-verbal clues in their body language - is it positive, angry, frustrated, negative.
- Share your own body language to show you're listening: a nod, leaning towards the person, maintaining eye contact. Be respectful of your body language and bear in mind that in some cultures personal contact is not acceptable.
The goal is to leave the conversation with no misunderstanding on either side: you have understood what has been said, and the speaker is confident you have understood them.
Be an effective communicator
As well as demonstrating active listening, you need to hone your communication skills.
- Be clear with instructions, and if necessary, ask the other person to repeat the instructions back to you to ensure they have understood.
- Be approachable and open. Make it clear to employees that they can come to you with any questions or concerns they might have. This will be even more important in some cultures that might be reluctant to raise their heads above the parapets for fear of reprisal.
- Show empathy in your communications with all employees. It's important that they feel you are not just listening to their concerns but really hearing them.
- Be respectful in all your communications. In a multicultural environment, it can be a challenge to avoid offending someone, no matter how unintentional. The best course of action is to be clear and concise at all times, be approachable but never too familiar and give consistent feedback.
- Be cautious with humor. Humor is often a personal thing, and many cultures simply don't appreciate humor in the workplace. If you do want to lighten the mood, make sure your brand of humor is not likely to cause offense. Don't be judgmental
- There will be differences across cultures, and this cannot be altered. The key is to respect those differences and to work with them or around them. One of the main principles of effective cross-cultural communication is that there is no judgment.
- It's a good idea to develop at least some knowledge of your team's backgrounds and cultures so on some level you can establish a basic rapport. There will, of course, be elements that you may not understand, but it's important to reserve judgment.
- Consider promoting cultural diversity among your team. A couple of hours where team members talk about certain elements of their culture to the team could be a good way to build team respect and cultural knowledge, and it could also be a good icebreaker.
In every culture, there exists certain forms of etiquette around the way people communicate, some more formal than others. If time allows, it can be beneficial to carry out some research on the culture in question and to get a good understanding of what is expected of you when engaging with an individual from this culture.
An example of this is being conscious of not jumping into first name terms with an individual unless they make it clear it is okay to do so, as many cultures have a degree of formality in regards to the opening of conversations: ‘Herr’ and ‘Frau’ in Germany, reversing family and given names in China and the use of ‘san’ in Japan for men and women, etc.
Keep it simple
When it comes to cross-cultural conversations it's much easier to keep things straightforward and simple. There is no need to use overly complicated dialogue or big words as this will just make it harder for both parties. Bear in mind, two-syllable words are much easier to understand than three-syllable words. One-syllable words are even better again. Always be conscious to give orders or make statements in the simplest possible format despite how you would normally phrase the sentence.
Individuals from other cultures who have obtained fluency in English will still often struggle with the language's slang, sayings, and idioms. Even if the person understands the words that have just been said, they will struggle with the context of the meaning, adding to their confusion. This is why it makes sense to leave such phrases out of cross-cultural conversations as a general rule.
Understand the culture, (sub)culture, and creed
Respecting differences in the workplace, even differences in appearance can be challenging across the generational divide, yet it's an area you must start to embrace in today's ever-evolving society. As long as employees are professional and presentable, then the focus should be solely on their work and contribution to the business itself. Their appearance is not the thing that matters. Employees from any culture who are valued and feel good about themselves will work harder, smarter, and better.
Three key communication lessons for managing a crisis
Barriers to cross-cultural communication
Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's own cultural group is somehow innately superior to others. This negative mindset of establishing cultural superiority can create serious clashes in the workspace. It becomes easy for people to negatively judge those whose world views do not align with their own and the situation can quickly escalate to an ‘us versus them’ scenario.
Being culturally sensitive and keeping an open mind is essential to ensure pleasant interactions among colleagues. Learning to effectively manage ethnocentric beliefs will lead toward a better working environment for all.
Stereotyping occurs when individuals are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information they need in order to make fair judgments about people or situations. In the workplace, this can present itself when co-workers from different cultural backgrounds feed into clichés about each other without taking the time to get to know one another personally.
Few would deny they have a mental picture of national behavior, however, it’s necessary people are prepared to suspend these oversimplified beliefs as every person is unique and it makes no sense to judge an individual solely on their culture or nationality.
Language barriers can have a significant impact on business operations, particularly when some members of a team are not as fluent in a certain language as the others.
In global teams, people who are less fluent in English tend to withdraw from communication, leading to a loss of input. Thankfully, there are ways to combat these issues, and measures such as speaking at a slower pace and avoiding colloquial phrases or idioms can help.
Language barriers can also present themselves in the workplace when two employees with equally bad communication skills try to have a discussion but struggle to understand each other's intended meaning. Conditions such as dyslexia, which impacts an individual’s ability to read and understand words and symbols, is also classed as a language barrier
In today's global work environment, it's a given that companies need culturally diverse teams to succeed. However, with such diverse teams, intercultural conflicts are almost unavoidable. Cultural clashes happen when one person’s behavior compromises that of someone else’s values and beliefs.
Awareness of our own cultural biases and assumptions can go a long way toward improving relations in multicultural situations. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way of doing things; it’s just a matter of cultural norms.
- Write things down
- Take turns to talk
- Avoid closed questions
- Be careful with humor
- Be supportive
- Speak slowly
- Accept that misunderstandings may occur
- Avoid double questions
- Keep an open mind
In the modern workplace, individuals from a wide range of diverse backgrounds and cultures work side by side. To communicate in such culturally diverse environments, it’s important for business professionals to develop cultural intelligence. Cross-cultural communication creates a network and helps businesses establish a strong chain both internally and externally.
Building cross-cultural communication in the workplace can be a challenge, but creating an environment where the team feels listened to, respected, and understood can be rewarding, and importantly, could lead to improved productivity and staff retention.
Furthermore, as organizations continue to expand globally, having effective cross-cultural communication in place makes these expansions into worldwide markets run more smoothly.