Cross-cultural communication is how people of different cultural backgrounds communicate with one another. In today’s society, technology has allowed us to reach people from all over the world, and yet our primary interactions are overwhelmingly with people who look, think, and act like we do. With that increased connectivity and the other (admittedly too slow) shifts towards racial equity in American culture comes an increasingly diversified workforce.
According to the book Our Compelling Interests, between 2010 and 2030, the primary labor force-age population will experience a net loss of 15 million Whites; at the same time, it will gain 26 million racial minorities. As these shifts begin to take effect, learning how to effectively communicate across cultural lines will be (and is already!) a vital part of a company’s successes and employee satisfaction rates.
The key to cross-cultural communication is learning how to differentiate between behaviors that are universal from those that are culture-specific. For example, people in all cultures use language to communicate, have interpersonal relationships, and consume food and drink, yet the specific expressions of these elements vary by culture. Because these specifics vary, taking the time to develop sensitivity and awareness is essential to helping us navigate cultural differences and creating an effective way of communicating professionally and personally.
Here are my top 3 tips to properly executing cross-culture communication:
1Educate Yourself: When coming face-to-face with someone from a different culture, it’s important to give yourself a study session. Get a brief understanding of the culture to help to familiarize yourself.
While practicing how to greet someone is a great start, it is also important to practice patience and to actively observe.
Make sure to expand your knowledge on someone else’s cultural behaviors and how they might be different from your own. For example, the American way of giving a thumbs up means “okay” but in the Middle East it’s highly offensive. What may be culturally inappropriate to you may be the norm for someone else.
2Use Proper Language: Keeping your statements concise is extremely helpful. Don’t make things more difficult by using obscure words and tacking on synonyms. For example, just say “She works slowly” instead of “She’s pretty sluggish on getting her work done.” Sometimes less is more.
Be sure to avoid using humor since different cultures portray “jokes” in a different way. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are worried about the language barrier it might be worth getting a translator to avoid any miscommunications.
3Be Aware of Non-Verbal Communication: Although spoken language may seem like the most effective way to communicate, people can sense your energy through body language. Your nonverbal behaviors (facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, etc.) send clear messages to whomever you’re speaking to whether you realize it or not. Communicating with others is not always an easy task, so it’s important to make sure all parties feel comfortable to contribute. This will create a professional bond and trust. Treat everyone with the respect you would want to be given. Make sure to learn how respect and disrespect are interpreted in different cultural settings.
In my own experience working and living in 23 countries, adapting to cross-culture communication has made me more empathetic and patient when interacting with others. For example, speaking to a group of students in the Fiji Islands, my peers from the states assumed the students were uninterested and not understanding me because they were not asking questions or engaging with the materials. Rather, this was a show of respect and deference to authority figures and speaks to diverse learning styles.
I have been an outsider in other countries, not knowing the language or culture very well. Having experienced being an outsider has instilled in me a degree of patience, humility and forgiveness when interacting with folks who might be new to the culture and language that I’m familiar with. The best way to understand and communicate with others is to listen, learn, practice, reflect and forgive — both others and yourself.