Understanding Cross-Cultural Communication in International Business

Cross-cultural communication exists when people from differing cultures have reached a certain degree of understanding regarding their differences. For understanding to take place, both people must have some form of knowledge or awareness regarding the norms or customs that exist in each other’s culture. Verbal and nonverbal communications can contain implied meanings, as well as certain degrees of symbolism. For successful communication to take place, background knowledge concerning values, norms and perceptions is necessary in order for clear, effective communication to take place.

The key to effective cross-cultural communication is knowledge. It is essential that people understand the potential problems of cross-cultural communication, and make a conscious effort to overcome these problems and important to assume that one’s efforts will not always be successful, and adjust one’s behavior appropriately. For example, one should always assume that there is a significant possibility that cultural differences are causing communication problems, and be willing to be patient and forgiving, rather than hostile and aggressive, if problems develop. One should respond slowly and carefully in cross-cultural exchanges, not jumping to the conclusion that you know what is being thought and said.

Understanding Cross-Cultural Communication in International Business

Active listening can sometimes be used to check this out-by repeating what one thinks he or she heard, one can confirm that one understands the communication accurately. If words are used differently between languages or cultural groups, however, even active listening can overlook misunderstandings.

Often intermediaries who are familiar with both cultures can be helpful in cross-cultural communication situations. They can translate both the substance and the manner of what is said. For instance, they can tone down strong statements that would be considered appropriate in one culture but not in another, before they are given to people from a culture that does not talk together in such a strong way. They can also adjust the timing of what is said and done. Some cultures move quickly to the point; others talk about other things long enough to establish rapport or a relationship with the other person. If discussion on the primary topic begins too soon, the group that needs a “warm up” first will feel uncomfortable. A mediator or intermediary who understands this can explain the problem, and make appropriate procedural adjustments.

Yet sometimes intermediaries can make communication even more difficult. If a mediator is the same culture or nationality as one of the disputants, but not the other, this gives the appearance of bias, even when none exists. Even when bias is not intended, it is common for mediators to be more supportive or more understanding of the person who is of his or her own culture, simply because they understand them better. Yet when the mediator is of a third cultural group, the potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings increases further. In this case engaging in extra discussions about the process and the manner of carrying out the discussions is appropriate, as is extra time for confirming and re-confirming understandings at every step in the dialogue or negotiating process.

Need of Cross-Cultural Communication

Within the business context, cross-cultural communication refers to interpersonal communication and interaction across different cultures. This has become an important issue in our age of globalization and internationalization. Effective cross-cultural communication is concerned with overcoming cultural differences across nationality, religion, borders, culture and behavior.

Cross-cultural communication is critical to the business world. The diversity of people in cities and countries means an element of cross-cultural communication will always be needed whether it is between staff, colleagues, customers or clients. Awareness of cultural differences can favorably impact the success of a business. Improved staff interaction, better customer relations and effective client management are all areas that will reap benefits through cross-cultural understanding.

Although cross-cultural communication competency can only be truly achieved through cross cultural awareness training, language acquisition, foreign travel and cultural immersion there are some guidelines that can enhance your cross-cultural communication skills.

  • Speaking Skills: Listening and speaking must work in tandem for effective cross-cultural communication. Speaking well is not about accent, use of grammar and vocabulary or having the gift of the gab. Rather, cross-cultural communication is enhanced through positive speech such as encouragement, affirmation, recognition and phrasing requests clearly or expressing opinions sensitively.
  • Observation:  Large amounts of cross-cultural information can be read in people’s dress, body language, interaction and behavior. Be aware of differences with your own culture and try to understand the roots of behaviors. Asking questions expands your cross cultural knowledge.
  • Patience:  Man has been created differently and we need to recognize and understand that sometimes cross cultural differences are annoying and frustrating. In these situations patience is definitely a virtue. Through patience respect is won and cross cultural understanding is enhanced.
  • Flexibility:  Flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness are the route to successful cross-cultural communication. Understanding, embracing and addressing cross-cultural differences leads to the breaking of cultural barriers which results in better lines of communication, mutual trust and creative thinking.

Following these cross-cultural communication needs will allow for improved lines of communication, better cross-cultural awareness and more successful cross-cultural relationships.

Business Problems in Cross-Cultural Communication

Business is headed in a decidedly international direction and this means that there will be some changes. Corporations are looking to make doing business as easy as they possibly can, but this new move out multi-national business has created a new set of challenges. The most unavoidable of these new business challenges is a barrier in cross-cultural communication. When people do business, they need to be speaking the same language. Even if two folks are not naturals of a certain language, there must exist a certain consistency in the verbiage in order to avoid some potentially catastrophic circumstances.

In addition, more and more managers are seeing problems within their own workplace because of a lack of understanding of other cultures. This problem is not an international one. It simply involves two people of a different ethnic background who do not understand the other culture well enough to effectively communicate with each other. This occurs most commonly because businesses do not emphasize this portion of their training.

Before a business can take effective action to pre-empt the problems in cross-cultural communication, they must know exactly what these problems are. In general, they seem pretty obvious. On the surface, they seem like things that the businesses should never miss. Time and time again, businesses miss these things though and it contributes to their downfall.

A complete lack of communication is the most common and damaging of all of these problems. This most often occurs when managers and upper level management do not feel the need to communicate with their workers because they do not know how. When your people are left in the dark, they do not perform well. This problem in cross-cultural communication has as much to do with a lack of information sharing than it does the inability to get that message across.

Obviously, choice of words and diction is important when speaking to people of a different culture. Not only must you be able to use the correct jargon in order to allow them to clearly understand your message, but you must also be careful not to use terms which might be offensive to that person. Generally, workers do not mean to harm anyone when they choose hurtful words, but the damage can often times be irreparable. In this case, it is always better to be safe than to be sorry.

Problems in cross-cultural communication will continue to plague businesses until they make a conscious effort to change some things. In general, people do not communicate well with each other because they are uneducated about the little things that a different culture might do. With some effort, this can be changed and corporate profitability can improve.

Overcome Problems in Cross-Cultural Communication

  • Meetings:  Run meetings to expose your employees to other cultures. Introducing employees who will be working together in a non-threatening environment enables a good working relationship long term. Learning about another culture’s language, rules and norms for acceptable behavior helps prepare your employees to deal with situations as they arise. Changing preconceptions can lead to more conducive working relationships.
  • Activities: Conduct activities to demonstrate how dependent we are on language. For example, dedicate a day to being silent. Have each employee develop a contract stating what they hope to learn, how long they will remain silent (what exceptions can be made) and how they plan to cope without speaking all day. After experiencing a day with limited communication, participants can typically relate to being in a foreign environment more easily.
  • Workshops: Provide workshops, tips and techniques for communicating effectively in cross-cultural work environments. People act according to the values of their own culture. Others from another culture might interpret behavior differently. Practicing such strategies as active listening (paraphrasing what is said to ensure understanding can be achieved) and using multiple forms of communication, such as written, audio and visual, can enhance employee involvement in assuring that conflicts do not arise because of cultural misunderstandings due to lack of awareness.
  • Coaching: Coach employees to mediate conflicts related to cultural misunderstandings. Provide opportunities for employees to respond to situations from viewpoints different than their own. Divide a group of people into pairs to conduct role-playing exercises that allow participants to acknowledge culture difference exist. Encourage each pair to think about a conflict they have experienced recently due to cultural differences. Have each participant describe what they might find offensive or unusual. Let each participant suggest how the problem would be handled in their own culture. Together, have the participants develop a resolution to the problem. Have each pair report to the larger group on their experiences.
  • Take it Slow: A common objection that non-native speakers raise is the speed with which native speakers tend to communicate. Whether you’re speaking to someone who is just beginning to learn the language or a long-time English speaker who hails from a different culture, it’s helpful to modulate the pace of your speech. However, keep in mind that if you slow down too much, the effect may be insulting.
  • Active Listening: An effective strategy for improving cross-cultural communication is what experts call “active listening.” This technique involves restating the other speaker’s statements to ensure you understand their meaning and asking frequent questions. This is a great way to ensure that important information doesn’t “slip through the cracks” in a cross-cultural conversation.
  • Small Size Information:  If you stop to think about it, even a single sentence in a conversation between two fluent speakers can contain a great deal of information. That’s why cross-cultural communication experts recommend limiting the amount of information you try to convey at one time. Stick to simple, direct instructions and explanations, and try to avoid complex, multi-part sentences.
  • Cultural Assumptions:  If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country, you probably realize just how much of our verbal and non-verbal communication relies on a shared set of cultural beliefs and attitudes. When you’re speaking to someone from another culture, try to avoid things like jokes, slang, or references that might be confusing or misleading to a non-native speaker.
  • Adopt for Friendly Formality:  North American English speakers often adopt a casual, informal approach to conversations, even when they are addressing a stranger or a new acquaintance. This approach may be off-putting or unsettling to someone from a different cultural background. To ensure that you’re conveying an appropriate level of respect, use a more formal mode of speaking and gradually scale back the level of formality as the relationship develops.

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