Communicating Across Cultures at Work September 21 2016, 2 Comments

by Erich Toll


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Imagine a promising manager getting a promotion, and working with a global team for the first time. At the very first meeting, he causes embarrassment, confusion, and loss of respect. Valuable team members start eying the exit - and another job.

It happens more often than you think, as shown in this popular video about a multicultural team. Most Americans have little intercultural experience. The United States is a large country that shares only two borders, one of which with a country that speaks mostly the same language. Some 54% percent of Americans have never been outside the country.

But business is becoming increasingly global, and the average American is increasingly likely to work with people from other cultures, whether at home or abroad. And people from other cultures not only view the world differently, but have fundamentally different ways of communicating.

This means that employees need new skills, specifically effective intercultural communication training. How do they acquire these skills? In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Tsedal Neeley, contended the key is to absorb, ask, and relate.

“They absorb cultural knowledge and behaviors through careful listening and observation, ask questions to fill in contextual blanks, and are able to relate to one another on a personal level,” Neeley said.

The first step – absorb – also requires training, and learning how communication patterns differ. Here are four key variables that can affect intercultural communication:

1. Direct versus Indirect: this is usually a challenging aspect. Whereas people from North America and northern Europe tend to be direct, most other cultures in the world are indirect. Whereas an American might answer a question with a clear no, someone from Asia or Latin America might answer that same question maybe…which unbeknownst to the American really means no.

2. Hierarchy: Direct versus indirect communication is often affected by perceptions of hierarchy. In an indirect culture, an executive or customer might communicate very directly and be forthcoming a subordinate, employee or a service provider. But in contrast, the employee and service provider are much more likely to communicate indirectly - and possibly mislead or withhold information – rather than offend their superior.

3. Context: Where a conversation takes place, who is present, and many other factors also can affect the context of communication. An employee from Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East is more likely to give his or her superior bad news, in private. But that same person might be very likely to avoid the topic - or redirect the discussion - in the presence of others.

4. Values: values can vary widely between cultures. Americans tend to be very motivated by career success, efficiency, and the accumulation of wealth. But in many other cultures, they place greater emphasis on other ideals. The most common example is family, and understanding the importance of family in other cultures, can enable more effective understanding.

Conclusion: different people have different ways of viewing the world - and different ways of communicating. Communicating across cultures at work is a skill, and a skill that can be learned. Now is the time to give your people the training they need.

What did I miss? Please leave your comments or additional tips below.

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