IC Matters


Importance of intercultural communication


 — August 9th, 2019

Importance of intercultural communication

Workplace diversity is at its zenith. We're fortunate enough to live in a time when remote working is commonplace, and big businesses are actively engaged in recruiting from a diverse pool of professionals in order to strengthen teams and broaden talent. And yet navigating your way through a multicultural workplace, virtual or otherwise, can be fraught with frequent misunderstandings and unexpected complications, and, unsurprisingly, it all comes down to communication.

A new way to talk

We often tend to think of communication as just words on a screen and sounds on the tip of our tongue, and while the ways in which we communicate both verbally and online are important, it's also important to recognize how our silent gestures – our demeanor, body language, and facial expressions – alter the ways in which our messages are received. This is especially true when it comes to interacting with colleagues from different and diverse backgrounds.

A recent Forbes article states that “putting yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to look at things from their perspective takes a conscious effort,” a practice which is especially true when attempting to adapt to aspects of a seemingly foreign culture. What it really boils down to, of course, is awareness.

A better way to listen

Being aware of the cultural differences of others is a workplace necessity. Not only acknowledging but understanding how and why we act – and react – in the way in which we do is important for day-to-day interactions and for the business as a whole. In fact, in today's climate, the only way to maintain a highly functional, results-driven team is by respecting the mannerisms and customs of others, as strange as it may feel at first, and adapting to change.

As entrepreneur William Craig explains, “you need people who can help you develop strong values and cultivate a healthy workplace,” a workplace where colleagues feel included, respected and, more importantly, understood.

A smarter way to act

Whether working as part of a team, managing said team or taking meetings in countries with unique cultural customs and behaviors, it's crucial to recognize these customs and understand why they're important. For example, you probably already know that it's considered a major faux pas to enter a home or temple in Asia while wearing shoes.

But did you know that's because, in some parts of the continent, at least, the spirit is said to reside in the uppermost part of the body (the head), and the lowermost part (the feet) are viewed as being unclean? It's a practice that's very much couched in tradition, but one that also serves a more pragmatic purpose, too. Eating, sleeping, and socializing frequently take place close to the floor, if not on floor level, and as a matter of cleanliness and respect shoes are removed before entering the home.

Another way to be

Fortunately, the Internet is your friend, and Google can be a simple and useful aid when researching the customs and traditions of your colleagues and business partners. It's a sure-fire way to pre-empt potentially awkward situations, and it could mean the difference between making a good first impression and coming off as rude.

On the flip side, it's a worthwhile pursuit to hold back your own judgment in circumstances where a colleague or business partner may come across cold or abrupt during a meeting. It isn't uncommon for Americans and some European countries, like Germany, to cut to the chase during a meeting or a phone call, with little time left for exchanging pleasantries.

In the UK, however, ‘please,’ ‘sorry’, and ‘thank you’ are almost a prerequisite and are considered polite during most business interactions. If you find yourself in a position where the situation is unclear, remember to ask yourself the following things:

  • Am I judging the situation based on aspects of my own culture?
  • Could the situation be a cultural norm I'm not aware of?
  • Is there a gap in my knowledge, and can I learn from the interaction?

Communication, awareness, and understanding are by far your three main tools when navigating the ocean of intercultural business practices. Armed with an open mind and a search engine, you can quickly and accurately look up mannerisms, practices, and aspects of other cultures at a moment's notice. And remember, if, in doubt, your number-one tool for the job is quick, easy, and free to use. You can find out all you need to know, and more, by simply asking. It's a great ice breaker, and an excellent way to learn more about the people you're working with and the cultures they grew up in.

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