Problems with Cross-cultural Communication

Updated: Jun 30

George Bernard Shaw once said,

"The problem with communication...

is the illusion that it has been accomplished."


This quote helps remind me our communication styles affect the way we think. We must be mindful of how clear our language is to ensure others will interpret our words in the ways we desire. Vague language and other attitudes and approaches to communication can open doors to disconnects in understanding, especially across cultures, or in relations with not as solid of a foundation.

Being mindful of common ways communication can vary across cultures is another step towards cultural mastery. Understanding the different styles, attitudes, and approaches talked about in this article can better help prevent communication disconnects and misunderstandings when communicating across cultures.

 

Communication Styles

Be open to learning the communication styles of those you work with to better engage with them. Styles of communication can refer to many different types of interactions, both verbal and nonverbal. The type of language and how it is used in professional settings vary from culture to culture. In terms of how group discussions work, some cultures may appreciate smaller groups splitting off to have different discussions or interruptions to jump in and give new points. Other cultures may be uneasy with less structured forms of discussions. The level of importance given to nonverbal communication is also an important point to understand. It can be anything from how neutral or animated your facial expressions are, or what gestures you use, to how the other culture treats time. Other matters such as personal space and the appropriate levels of assertiveness or forwardness are factors to consider.


Decision-Making Styles

The importance of making decisions also varies from culture to culture.

There might be value placed on the person chosen to make decisions, and often it is an official with higher status. In other cultures, a high-ranking official might delegate different decisions to various subordinates who deal with similar tasks. Another option when a larger group of people need to decide is through a consensus or a majority rule. The decision needed to be made as well as the culture greatly affects how people respond.


Approaches to Completing Tasks

The cultural relationship to assignments also varies, especially regarding working independently or within a group. When collaborating, some cultures may place more

importance on building relationships and may focus more on first building relations before focusing on the task at hand. Other more task-oriented cultures may find focusing on the task and building the relationship as they complete it more rewarding. Neither of these processes is wrong; it relates to how culture may access information or resources, how highly they may value rewards and accomplishments, or even how important time management is to the culture.


Attitudes Toward Conflict

Different cultures have different relationships with conflict. Most see it as undesirable but prefer different ways of dealing with conflicting situations. In the U.S. for example, it is encouraged to deal with conflict head-on and as concisely as possible; many western cultures see it as a chance to learn. These types of cultures may not mind discussing the conflict either. What the conflict might have been about, or how it came to be might be common discussions. In eastern countries or cultures, conflict may be seen as embarrassing, and a quiet or private exchange would be preferred to address the misunderstanding. It is customary to not release information about conflicts in these types of cultures as well as any personal involvement within them. It could be seen as intrusive or rude to ask about.


Giving Feedback

Constructive criticism is a critical part of any job, especially regarding teamwork or group projects. In more western countries, where the cultures may be more individualistic, workers see constructive criticism as a chance to learn or for personal development. Feedback is freely given, and it is not uncommon for it to be given in front of a group of other workers. In cultures that are more collectivist, they may focus more on relationships and could be less accustomed to giving out criticisms. If they give feedback at all, it is more likely that people from these cultures will meet where they can talk one-on-one with the other person outside of the workplace or in an informal setting. Feedback may not even be given to the person directly. Constructive criticism may be given to a team leader to then convey the feedback to the intended recipient. Still, some cultures prefer not to give constructive criticism at all and prefer to let time take care of it.

 

To ensure we keep communication disconnects and misunderstandings to a minimum, my biggest recommendation is to build relationships. Be open to learning the communication styles of those you work with to better engage with them. When you garner trust, communication will come more readily, and people will be more open to discussing situations when miscommunication arises.


If you work in a diverse environment or if your workplace requires cross-cultural communication training, let's connect!






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