From a young age, people absorb the knowledge, beliefs and values of the culture they grow up in. Effective cross-cultural communication is about being aware of the differences in the way people from different cultures act/react and adapting your behaviour accordingly.
These skills are highly valued by employers, as those employees who demonstrate them are generally more successful at work: they are more likely to work well within diverse teams, secure new projects and represent the company’s brand and ethos in a positive light.
On the flip side, those who lack these skills could potentially dampen team productivity, damage client relations and put the company’s reputation at risk.
The first step to building your cross-cultural communication skills is to be aware of the way communication varies across cultures. Here are some differences you need to consider:
1. How people show emotion
Cultures tend to either be affective, where displaying emotion is common, or neutral, where emotions are carefully controlled and subdued.
If you’re working with people from an affective culture, let your emotions show during communication and share your feelings to build stronger work relationships. Also, consider learning techniques to diffuse situations when emotions run high.
If your co-workers are from a neutral culture, try and keep your own outward displays of emotion in check and stay on topic in discussions. You may have to read between the lines in conversations with them, to grasp their true feelings on a subject.
2. How direct they are
Cultures can be differentiated into high-context and low-context cultures, depending on how much they value direct communication.
If you’re working with people from high-context cultures, they will feel direct communication is key with the message spelt out in no uncertain terms. You need to include all the details of how and when something will happen in a project, as ambiguity will only confuse or frustrate them.
However, if you are communicating with individuals from a low-context culture, be aware that they will rely more on indirect communication that takes into account background information and subtext. Being too direct could risk offending them so try not to question them over minor details, as they prefer to focus on the big picture.
3. How they give and respond to feedback
Employees from different cultures often feel differently about the most effective way to give and receive feedback.
Some cultures are more extroverted and therefore comfortable with open and casual conversations about performance. If you’re working with an extroverted team, they’ll find feedback in a group environment constructive. Be prepared for them to challenge your opinions and accept that they aren’t personal attacks.
However, if your colleagues come from an introverted culture, you need to be more sensitive when delivering feedback. They will likely find it more acceptable when given in a private one-to-one setting. You might also need to find a way for them to deliver their own opinions anonymously and avoid confronting them in front of others.
While differences in communication across cultures are incredibly nuanced, this list is a good starting point to begin developing your skills. Every workplace you enter, make sure you remind yourself of the different ways in which people may prefer to communicate and actively observe the preferences of those around you. It’s all about being tuned in to the values, behaviours and styles of others and adapting your own style to fit this.