On a modern work team, chances are high that not all of your colleagues will share your same cultural background.
Today’s business landscape is filled with tons of large companies that have offices and locations all across the globe—meaning their employees need to collaborate successfully despite borders and different outlooks.
That’s a positive thing, but it also presents some unique hurdles. Communicating with colleagues has always brought some challenges along with it, but it becomes even trickier when you need to regularly converse with people who have different perspectives and cultural norms than you.
How can you avoid crossed wires and confusing messages?
How can you make sure that you won’t be unintentionally offensive?
How can you foster a supportive, encouraging, and productive team environment—despite these obvious differences?
It all comes back to effective cross-cultural communication in the workplace, and we connected with a couple of different experts to get the lowdown on everything you need to know.
Let’s face it—it’s far easier to communicate with someone who is exactly like you; someone who shares your values, your perceptions, and your approach.
It’s when there are disconnects between those things that communication becomes more complicated, and that’s exactly why cross-cultural communication presents some barriers for today’s professionals.
“What makes communication so challenging is that the background and cultural norms of each country can be greatly different,” explains Sharon Schweitzer, JD, Intercultural Trainer, Cross-Cultural Coach, and Author of Access to Asia (Wiley), named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2015. She is also the Founder of Access to Culture.
“Take color, for example, which people often assume to have universal meaning,” she continues. “In the U.S., white represents purity and innocence as in a bridal gown or christening robe. However, in many Asian cultures, the color white signifies death.”
That’s a pretty significant difference, right?
It’s these types of oftentimes unspoken contrasts and inherent understandings that can present issues when communicating as part of a cross-cultural work team. Messages can be misunderstood or totally unnoticed and feelings can be hurt—simply because we all look at these exchanges through our own cultural lens.
What Are the Benefits of a Cross-Cultural Team?
While collaborating and communicating with a cross-cultural team isn’t without its challenges, there are numerous benefits that can be experienced.
For starters, these types of diverse teams are able to lean on those differing perspectives to explore more options and then make important decisions with a greater amount of information in their back pocket.
“Many individuals possess insight in to other cultures that we as colleagues don’t have,” says Schweitzer, “The more diverse your workforce culturally, the greater array of information gained.”
Additionally, this diverse and well-rounded perspective can have a direct impact on the bottom line for a business. “The more diverse the knowledge, the greater the market value,” explains Gayle Cotton, President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, and Executive Coach.
One recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to increased levels of innovation. A different McKinsey study discovered that companies with more culturally and ethnically-diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits.
Yes, companies stand to gain a lot from employing culturally-diverse teams, but individuals don’t go unrewarded either. “The personal experience gained from working with cross-cultural teams is invaluable,” adds Cotton.
Communicating with people who are different from you is an important skill—both inside and outside of the workplace. And, working as part of a cross-cultural team requires you to learn more about how to excel in that area, while also opening yourself up to different opinions and perspectives that can shape your own viewpoints moving forward.
“We all have preconceived conceptions about cultures that are very different from our own,” says Cotton. “We need to move beyond these preconceived ideas and be open to developing cross-cultural relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.”
In order to do that, it’s important to recognize some of the pervasive myths that exist about cross-cultural communication. Here are three that the experts say are common.
Myth #1: That there’s a single “correct” culture.
This is an easy trap to fall into—even for people who are truly invested in communicating more effectively with different cultures.
Sure, we might channel energy into learning about those other cultural perspectives, but we do so with the (sometimes subconscious) assumption that our culture is still superior.
There is no such thing as one single culture that serves as a benchmark for all other cultures to be compared against. Just because something is different doesn’t make it inferior or incorrect.
Myth #2: That one person represents an entire population.
“Well I worked with a Swedish businessperson, and she was pretty direct. That must mean all Swedish people prefer straightforward and honest communication in any circumstance.”
Maybe you’ve never said something like that aloud, but we’re willing to bet that you thought something similar a time or two.
It’s tempting to do. We assign the preferences of an entire group to one single person, as if they’re the sole representative for the overarching interests of a whole culture.
Yes, there are certain cultural norms that you’ll have to be aware of (and, in fact, people from Sweden tend to prefer less confrontational communication), but people will still have individual preferences when it comes to communication. And, as this example shows, those preferences might even sometimes go against the standards of their culture.
Don’t lump everyone from a certain culture into one category, and instead take time to learn not only about their cultural background but also about their unique preferences.
Myth #3: That “business is business” no matter where you go.
In all honesty, this is an extremely ethnocentric way of thinking. You imagine the way business is conducted in your specific culture and then assume that it can’t differ anywhere else—business is business, right?
But, in reality, business really is different across the globe, because the people who are conducting the business are different.
For example, in Mexico, the average citizen works a little over 43 hours per week. In contrast, Germans work roughly 26 hours each week. If “business is business,” that Mexico-based team member would assume that their German co-worker would be working long hours just like them when that ultimately isn’t the reality of the situation.
How Can You Become a More Effective Cross-Cultural Communicator?
Effective cross-cultural communication offers a lot of benefits to businesses and individuals, but it also involves some conscious thought and effort.
So, what do you need to know to communicate more effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds? Here are six tips to put to work.
1. Develop your awareness.
“Awareness is the first step!” explains Cotton, “Be aware of who you are speaking to and their communication style. Don’t assume that everyone communicates the same way.”
While researching cultural norms is important (more on that in the second tip), it’s important to gain an understanding of those individual preferences as well.
When you’re working with a team member you aren’t as familiar with, don’t hesitate to have honest conversations and ask important questions like:
- How do you prefer to receive feedback?
- Do you tend to prefer written communication or in-person communication?
- Do you have any pet peeves related to communication?
This can seem a little forward (particularly if this is new to you), but approach it in a friendly and low-pressure way, and you’ll ensure that you and the other person get on the same page and are able to have a more productive and beneficial working relationship.
2. Research different cultural norms.
“If you want to better communicate with them, learn about their cultural norms or talk with a culture coach to better understand how best to communicate,” advises Schweitzer.
Of course, you can learn a lot through a simple internet search. But, one of the best ways to understand a person’s culture is to ask them about it.
They’ll likely be more than willing to share, and not only will you get the information you need, but you’ll also lay the groundwork for a closer relationship moving forward.
3. Avoid jargon and slang.
Jargon and slang can be confusing even when you’re communicating with people from your own culture. So, make this your new workplace communication golden rule: The clearer you can be, the better.
Remember, things like slang (which is heavily influenced by cultural norms) and jargon don’t always translate. So, focus on making your message as explicit as possible and you’ll hopefully avoid any crossed wires or miscommunications.
4. Learn the language.
No, this doesn’t mean you need to become fluent in every single language that’s present on your team. Instead, this tip is about demonstrating a certain level of engagement and investment in learning about other cultures.
Even putting the work in and learning something as simple as a friendly greeting or a “thank you” can go a long way in showing all of your team members that you’re open-minded, understanding, and supportive.
5. Slow down your speech.
“It’s wise to slow down slightly when speaking,” warns Cotton.
While it might seem surprising, the rate of our speech is another thing that’s influenced by cultural norms. Spanish, as one example, is known for being a particularly fast language, while Mandarin is deliberate and slow.
When communicating, you don’t want to speak at such a sluggish pace that you come off as condescending, but being conscious of slowing down your speech pattern even a little bit can make you that much easier to understand—particularly when there might be a language barrier involved.
“A little more time now could save time later,” Cotton adds.
6. Confirm your understanding.
This is a smart habit to get into regardless of who you’re communicating with. When you’ve completed an exchange—whether written or verbal—take a brief moment to confirm your understanding of what was discussed.
This can be as simple as saying, “To summarize, you’re going to complete the slides for the presentation and I will put the finishing touches on the talking points. We’ll both have these pieces completed by Monday so we have time to rehearse and refine ahead of the meeting.”
Because confusion happens (regardless of culture), taking this extra step to confirm that you both have the same expectation about how you’ll move forward can save a lot of hassles, headaches, and frustration further down the line.
Effective Cross-Cultural Communication Won’t Just Happen
Cross-cultural communication has always existed in the workplace to some degree. But, as technology advances and global teams become more common, today’s workers are faced with an almost ever-present challenge of communicating successfully with people from numerous different cultures.
The most important thing to know is that successful communication isn’t something that’s just going to happen—like any other skill or competency, it requires awareness and then investing the time and hard work to improve.
It’s a constant learning process, but it’s well worth it for the rewards you’ll reap—including a more productive and supportive work environment, access to more information and an expanded perspective, and positive professional relationships that you’ll come to cherish.