A successful corporate culture allows for frequent and effective communication at all levels. Compare that with one that suffers from constant miscommunications and insufficient understandings, and you’ll quickly see that failures and frustration add up over time. According to a survey from Fierce, Inc., 86 percent of workers said that workplace failures happened due to ineffective communication and a lack of collaboration. As businesses grow and technology makes it easier to work with companies around the globe, the need for organizations to learn cross-cultural communication has grown with it.
By embracing agility and adaptability, cross-cultural communication in the workplace allows businesses to work with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. As a result, overall communication improves, bonds between coworkers grow, and the company’s performance reaches greater heights. Read on to find out more about cross-cultural communication, the sources of miscommunication, and tips for improving intercultural communication.
What is Cross-Cultural Communication?
Cross-cultural communication involves understanding the similarities and differences of people from different cultural backgrounds and groups to better communicate information and engage with them. This type of verbal and nonverbal communication is essential as businesses focus on increasing workplace diversity. Cross-cultural communication isn’t just for people in management positions. Every individual within an organization should learn the basic skills needed to improve their communication skills, particularly when working with those who might not share the same points of view or backgrounds.
To improve cross-cultural understanding in the workplace, leaders must first know what “culture” is. Culture doesn’t only mean where someone comes from. After all, two people from the same country might identify with very different cultures. Instead, think of culture as the values, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes an individual learns from those within their cultural group. Culture can affect a host of different things, from decision–making processes to how best to resolve conflict. A person’s culture may also be informed by things such as geography, religion, race, or ethnicity.
Cross-Cultural Communication Examples
As much as companies stress the importance of communication, plenty of stories show the problems caused by a lack of effective cross-cultural business communication. The frustrating part is that many of these issues could be avoided with more education and information on other cultures. Take the example of Chinese company representatives invited on a factory tour of a business in the U.S. as a gesture of goodwill before signing a major contract. At dinner, a junior member of the American company met with the Chinese representatives and told the head of the delegation to “sit where you like.” That’s when the problems started.
In Chinese culture, professionals place emphasis on hierarchy. So meeting with a junior member was almost an unintended insult. Additionally, telling the head of the Chinese delegation to sit anywhere instead of at the head of the table to show his level of importance was perceived as disrespectful. Because of this, the representatives left without signing a contract. While the American company eventually repaired the relationship, it led to a significant delay before signing the contract: a delay they could have avoided.
Miscommunication Can Happen Anywhere
That might be an extreme example, but minor slip-ups can still cause frayed relationships. Even with something as simple as writing an email, cross-cultural understanding is important before hitting “send.” For example, while Americans tend to favor a casual approach to email greetings, in Japanese and Austrian cultures, people prefer titles. Another instance of not taking cross-cultural communication into account would be providing lunch for the workplace without considering any dietary restrictions or preferences based on people’s cultures. Showing respect for employees’ cultural beliefs shows you care about recognizing, valuing, and honoring who they are.
Other sources of miscommunication can include:
- Misinterpreting nonverbal cues such as eye contact or the way someone dresses
- Believing stereotypes of groups of people based on media portrayals
- Assuming people of the same cultural background will behave similarly
- Evaluating someone’s behavior based solely on your own cultural upbringing
- Having breakdowns in understanding due to language differences
Tips for Improving Cross-Cultural Communication
Intercultural communication in the workplace can become an issue for many businesses due to some thinking it’s just too difficult to solve. Understanding cultural differences can seem like a monumental challenge, but it’s one in full reach of any organization willing to put in the time and effort. The following tips will help anyone seeking to communicate effectively.
1. Have an Open Mind
Many companies have learned that there’s more than one way to accomplish a goal. Even so, they can become close-minded when learning information about other cultures. Don’t fall into this line of thinking. Keep an open mind and learn all you can about a variety of different cultures. Feel free to ask questions at appropriate times. In the process of learning, you might come across a new way of thinking that can help out in business decisions.
2. Learn to Adapt
Interacting with other cultures often requires some flexibility and adaptation on your part. It’s also difficult for some people to accept changes and learn new things. This might come from a fear of failure or worries that these changes won’t lead to better results. Try to drive those thoughts away and accept that improvement is part of life. Be more willing to try new things and learn about different ways of thinking. Feel free to experiment with new ideas and see how they improve yourself and your company.
3. Develop Self-Awareness
Every person makes assumptions about other people. The first step to correcting those assumptions is recognizing you have them. This involves becoming more self-aware. One of the most effective ways to do this is to look at how you communicate with others. Go back in your emails and note how you respond. Do you react differently depending on the person you’re responding to? Do you factor in another person’s culture? How inclusive are you in the projects you assign and activities you hold? More introspection will lead to better outward communication.
4. Open Communication Channels
Improving cross-cultural communication also requires improving organizational communication in general. Companies that don’t foster open communication will find it more challenging to understand people from different backgrounds better. Improving communication means opening up those channels so that people feel free and comfortable to voice their thoughts and share information. Invite team members with diverse perspectives to share their opinions. Stronger relationships get built by opening lines of communication and encouraging curiosity at all times.
5. Encourage Face-to-Face Interactions
In a survey by Owl Labs, 80 percent of workers said they expect to work remotely at least three days every week. As remote work becomes more common, the chances for face-to-face conversations diminish. Try encouraging people to have more in-person interactions or, if that’s not possible, at the very least face-to-face dialogue over services like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. These interactions help people get to know others and can make communication easier. While email and direct messages can be convenient, they take away from the human element that’s so important for understanding people of other cultures. Make time for these meetings, and you’ll see cross-culture communication improve.
Other tips for improving cross-cultural communication:
- Avoid using slang.
- Speak clearly and avoid mumbling.
- Leave space for the other person to speak.
- Actively listen to others.
- Keep instructions simple.
- Be respectful.
- Ask questions to confirm understanding.
- Practice proper etiquette.
The Importance of Training
Cross-cultural communication isn’t always something that people will pick up over time. It requires training and practice, along with a little patience. Set aside regular training sessions to learn information about other cultures and what to expect when interacting with them. Teach the need for respect and understanding, especially in a world where people seem to act before thinking. Training sessions like these will prepare everyone in the company with the skills needed to succeed in a global marketplace.
Start Improving Communication Today
Better communication leads to better results for every business. Cross-cultural communication is one aspect of what should be a company-wide effort. With better intercultural communication in the workplace, organizations experience more positive work environments, leading to better employee retention and overall job satisfaction. A world of better communication requires starting today.
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