The importance of intercultural communication in an organization
— August 12th, 2021
Culture can be a tricky thing.
In the west, we're brought up to leave home and start a family in the early stages of our development, whereas in the east we're encouraged to stay in the homes of our parents and grandparents for the duration of our lives.
These are just a few of the differences you'll encounter when working within a culturally diverse, global company.
Being aware of other customs and traditions can not only be rewarding but is essential in today's broad, often remote workplace, where communication is key to a healthy working dynamic.
The ultimate guide to internal communications strategy
Why is intercultural communication important in the workplace?
- By enhancing cultural diversity in the workplace, brands can create and enhance trust with specific target markets. They can demonstrate an understanding of a particular culture and instill loyalty. This can make product, service, or office rollouts in new regions or countries run smoother and be more successful.
- Multicultural organizations can make a significant improvement in workplace churn and absenteeism; employees who feel included in their workplace take 75% fewer sick days than employees who feel like they do not belong. These employees also receive twice as many raises, and companies with employees who feel included see 50% less staff turnover.
- Product and service development also benefits from multi-cultural input. A diverse workforce can bring many experiences, cultural expectations, and viewpoints to the table and can help brands to create more rounded and complete products or services.
Cultural diversity in the workplace was already a boardroom imperative before 2020, but the massive increase in remote working since then has lit a fire under what was already a hot topic.
With remote working now a staple in most organizations, the hiring landscape has opened up dramatically.
Companies can now hire the best people for the job regardless of where they are based.
This shift will likely create even more culturally diverse work environments and will cement the need to communicate effectively with people from many different cultures.
As multicultural work environments become more commonplace and more diverse, internal communication and communication between teams in the workplace will need to evolve too.
The key to a successful intercultural workplace is inclusivity. All workers need to feel like they belong in the work environment and that they are valued.
In this light, communication can make the difference. Simple things like making all communications more inclusive and open is a good start but often it is the little details that people notice.
Including cultural references, honoring culturally important dates, and respecting different cultural sensibilities and beliefs in all communications whether formal or informal is good practice.
The goal of any multicultural workplace is to create a harmonious environment where workers can thrive. The challenge is encouraging harmony between many different cultures where beliefs and habits can differ greatly.
Communication is the bridge that can unite cultures but it needs constant tweaking, buy-in, and enthusiasm from all staff.
There needs to be a willingness to learn about different cultures, to find out what drives them and what's important to them.
This enthusiasm will work best if it comes from the top down. Inclusive messages and communications from C-suite members that remind everyone of the importance of diversity will be a key driver in intercultural communications.
The four elements of intercultural communication
Language is more than vocabulary and grammar. With the term languaculture (an enhancement of the original term linguaculture) anthropologist, Michael Agar makes the point that language comprises many elements including cultural knowledge, historical information, habits, quirks, and behaviors specific to a country or region where the language is spoken.
In today's globalized work environment where cultures readily mix, it is not enough to speak a language proficiently. As we try to avoid communication failures, understanding the languaculture will become important.
#2 Intercultural mediation
The role of intercultural mediation would typically be played by translators or interpreters, whose job it is to mediate between two people who do not speak each other's language.
The role is an important one, as both parties are reliant on the interpretation or translation to make decisions. And when we're dealing with languaculture, it's critical too that the translator interprets subtleties such as body language and cultural references.
#3 Channels of communication
There are two clear communication channels – verbal and non-verbal. Verbal refers to direct communication either spoken or written where the message is clearly communicated and understood.
Non-verbal comprises all the other ways in which we communicate – body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
This is often subconscious communication as we may not always be aware of the way in which we express ourselves while we speak and how these expressions could be interpreted.
#4 Subconscious elements in communicative behavior
Diving further into the subconscious side of communication, the way in which we speak or communicate is naturally affected by a myriad of factors that make up a culture.
Eye contact, for example, is viewed by some cultures as important when communicating with someone, while other cultures think that too much eye contact can be viewed as aggressive or rude.
These are pre-programmed subconscious elements that we all have and if you are to communicate effectively with someone from a different culture you should have some insight into their particular communication behaviors or traits.
The Ultimate Guide to Internal Communications Strategy
How can organizations ensure inclusivity in their intercultural communications?
Be aware of cultural differences
It may sound like a cliche, but a British person, a German, and an Asian walk into the boardroom for a meeting – how do you greet them? You have several options here, from a homogeneous, uniform shake of the hand (the one-size-fits-all approach) to a concentrated effort to recognize the distinct and different ways that each culture operates.
Clarissa Windham-Bradstock explains how, as people from diverse backgrounds, we “walk in the door with a unique DNA, having been shaped not just by genes, but by family, culture, education, beliefs and past experience”.
When interacting with colleagues and clients, being aware of each individual's cultural background, and how that background may differ from your own, can go a long way towards building bridges and nurturing relationships, even if it's as simple as recognizing the difference between a handshake and a bow of the head.
In order to respect the cultures and values of others, it's first important to be aware of what they entail.
A little research on who you're meeting and where they come from can set the right impression and avoid unforeseen cultural faux pas. After all, nobody wants to be the one who blows their nose at the lunch meeting.
Ensure clear and concise communication
In a multi-cultural environment, clear and concise messaging is important.
Fuzzy communications with culturally specific references or in-jokes will only muddy the waters and could cause confusion. Make sure that every piece of internal or formal communication delivers the message as directly as possible.
The goal with any communication is that it is understood by everyone. Misunderstandings can cause delays and eventually a breakdown in communications altogether.
See the non-verbal clues
Understanding your clients and colleagues is never an easy task, but by the same metric, it doesn't have to be a chore, either.
Being aware of acceptable norms and taboo subjects and actions is a mere Google search away, and it's a readily available tool to ensure that you avoid misunderstandings and unintended offense.
What may seem like an icily cold demeanor may well turn out to be nothing more than a cultural norm, and it's best to do your research rather than speculate upon the worst-case scenario.
As entrepreneur William Craig explains, “high-quality communication underpins everything you do and is a vital part of your success,” especially when it comes to workplace diversity.
In this situation it is important, perhaps, to think of communication not only as words but actions, too.
After all, every gesture we make imparts some aspect of who we are and how we're reacting, from a warm and welcoming smile to a respectful nod of the head, to a defensive covering of the chest.
Being aware of our actions as aspects of communication is not only important, but essential, and taking the time to acquaint ourselves with a diverse range of mannerisms idiosyncratic to their respective cultures is a valuable etiquette tool to have in your box.
Understand culture, (sub)culture, and creed
Culture can be a fraught and sometimes muddy area. Respecting differences in the workplace, even differences in appearance can be challenging across the generational divide, yet it's an area we are starting to embrace in today's ever-evolving society.
Windham-Bradstock says that “putting yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to look at things from their perspective takes a conscious effort” however, as long as your employees are professional and presentable, the focus should be firmly placed on their actions and contributions, rather than the way they may appear.
It may be stating the obvious, but employees who are valued and feel good about themselves often work harder, smarter, and better.
The ultimate guide to internal communications strategy
How to make culture work in an organization
There are many benefits to having a culturally diverse workplace. In an environment where people from many different cultural backgrounds work together, creativity and innovation can thrive.
Some cultures will naturally complement each other and a balance can be created and fostered. But making multiculturalism work in an organization will take work. First and foremost though, it requires a willingness to accept and work with cultural differences.
Paying attention to the backgrounds and needs of our employees, and hearing their voices is a vital role in today's society.
It isn't about checking off a box on a diversity quota check sheet but valuing people as people, over how they look and what they wear, where they come from, and what they believe in.
Generally speaking, people don't need or want special treatment, just a fair shot at an equal playing field, and one demographic should never be given preference over another.
If we treat our employees and the people within our lives with equal measure and genuine respect – regardless of our differences – we are sure to thrive.
You don't have to be an expert in cultural differences in order to succeed, you just have to dedicate a little time.