Look around you. If you’re working in an office, or in a public area, you can’t deny that we live in a multicultural world. Walking the streets, you can hear different languages and accents, and it is clear that the monocultural society is dead. More of us than ever before are working in companies where cultural diversity is the norm. A huge increase in global mobility means that we are more and more likely to find ourselves working in a team made up of people representing many different cultures. Working in such a culturally diverse environment makes life more interesting and exciting, but cross-cultural communication comes with its challenges too.
The first challenge we face is that different cultures communicate in very different ways. And by this, we should not only consider the different languages, dialects or accents that we are likely to encounter.
Although we should not underestimate the language barrier, it is something which is generally approached with good humor. We can clearly see the effort someone has made trying to learn our language and do not mind if they mispronounce a word or use a phrase out of turn.
The cultural barriers to communication are more nuanced. Culture determines how we see the world and how we interpret what is normal. When we see something that is not normal, we are more likely to judge it as wrong than look for a cultural explanation.
To operate effectively in our multicultural workplaces, we need to develop cross-cultural communication skills that challenge our default, subconscious reactions.
Good non-verbal communication skills
Eye contact, hand movements, facial expressions, touch, and gestures are all non-verbal ways of communicating. We are very comfortable with the thought that people from another country can speak a different language, but assume that body language is universal.
Personal space, smiling, eye contact, shaking hands, nodding – we assume that anyone doing something unexpected is abnormal, rather than having a different cultural perspective.
Studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say.
In the USA, job seekers are taught to make lots of eye contact in a job interview; in Ghana, the same eye contact is considered aggressive and disrespectful.
We may think of a gesticulating Italian, or a taciturn Brit as caricatures, but the reality is that we must look out for these non-verbal clues in order to work effectively with people from different backgrounds.
High-context and low-context cultures
The anthropologist, Edward Hall defined two fundamental communication styles that can differentiate cultures: high context and low context.
Low context cultures place a higher value on the specific meaning of the words used; they are more direct; the context of what is said is not as relevant, because the words give the context.
High context cultures consider the words as only a small part of the message. Meaning is transferred through implications and hints. Subtlety is important, language is indirect, and the whole context needs to be considered.
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In a low context culture, the statement, “It’s warm in here,” is just a report of the conditions. In a high context culture, the same statement can be taken to be a request to open the window.
An understanding of hierarchy
Culture has a huge role in understanding organizational structures.
Ascribed cultures give leadership status to the in-group: your status is defined by who you are, who you know.
They value people management skills. Achieved cultures focus on what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. They place value on the executive side of leadership.
A leader from an ascription culture is not used to being challenged. Their status means that their decisions are final and not open to discussion. They are more likely to be generalists than experts and take advice in private. A leader from an achievement culture is less interested in being liked than in getting things done.
Conflict resolution skills
A further issue to consider when working in a cross-cultural workplace is the way in which teams deal with and resolve conflict.
Disagreements are a normal part of workplace culture – or at least they are for those of us working in typically “low-context” cultures.
In “low-context” cultures, people may disagree often, but this is not seen as an impediment to moving forward. Disagreements are not viewed as personal attacks and are generally resolved rationally.
In “high-context” cultures, disagreements tend to be avoided due to the hierarchical structure and deference given to figures of authority, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the case of Korean Air’s cockpit culture and how it contributed to one of the worst safety records in the industry in his book Outliers. The company managed to successfully reverse this record by addressing communication and hierarchy within their company and making changes to a deeply embedded working culture.
Cross-cultural communication or just communication?
Without effective communication, business breaks down. The best product in the world will not sell, the most talented engineers cannot function, the most qualified experts have no voice when communication fails.
Cross-cultural communication is the key to unlocking new markets, streamlining processes, building more effective and productive teams and enhancing your organization’s reputation. But the reason it’s so important is that, in our globalized workplace, we may stop calling it cross-cultural communication – we’ll just call it communication.