Cross-Cultural Communication

Wunderbar Media LLC Video Agency Los AngelesIn our globalized world it has become normal to work with colleagues from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many have grown up, lived and/or worked in another country or continent. So organizations large and small are well advised to aid with the cross-cultural communication of their staff. But what if an organization doesn’t have the time and resources to hire a cross-cultural consultant with rates as high as $25.000 a day? (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/24/news/24iht-rcross_ed3_.html)

To show you basic areas on misunderstanding, let’s look at two areas where communication experts have found most miscommunication happens: Presentations and Email & Phone Communication.

There are two scenarios here: an American holding a presentation for a non-native English audience, and an international professional speaking in front of an American audience.

Let’s look at the first scenario: you are an American and are planning a presentation for a non-American audience, maybe even non-native English speakers. What does that mean for your preparation?

First of all, stay away from the urge to speak very slow or very loud. That will make your audience feel inferior. But there are a couple of things you should consider. Avoid using idioms, or analogies to US sports or culture that are very “US-specific”. Many people around the world follow American politics but many have no idea about the intricacies of “March Madness” or Fantasy Football.

If you are looking for a quote or joke to begin your talk, try to find something that the whole world knows about, like global news, a world-wide known public figure like Nelson Mandela or the US President, or a world-wide sports event like the Olympics or the World Cup.

Do speak as clearly as you can (but you probably know that as it should be valid for every presentation you give) and follow common presentation rules like looking at your audience instead of your digital tool. And of course, do you use body language as that is understood across cultures and it especially helps non-native English speakers. But again, don’t do anything you would not normally do like funny movements with your arms. In-authenticity is obvious across cultures and languages.

The second scenario: You are a non-native English speaker presenting in front of Americans.

Many international professionals are very nervous at this prospect, but always remember your audience really wants to understand you and listen to you. So smile and keep calm! Many people are so focused on the fear of mispronouncing a few words and that a US audience cannot understand them. If you feel like the audience is smiling at you but not following what you say (facial expressions and body language are universal, so pay attention to those), just repeat and describe your points a little different, maybe with a little more body language or an image.

We have also seen non-English natives present in English assuming the audience understands every word, just because they are speaking English the way they were taught in school. That is often not the case either. So do pause and ask if anything didn’t seem to make sense to the audience. This way you can find out if you might have used a word incorrectly or mispronounced something that led to a whole new meaning and made it impossible for your thoughts to be understood correctly.

In general, the interaction between the audience and the speaker becomes even more important in cross-cultural settings. So keep communicating with each other and enjoy the funny moments that arise out of many cross-cultural presentations.

Phone, video and email communication

In these budget-pinching times, many are looking for quick and affordable alternatives to pricey cross-cultural consultants, and we believe there are some easy guidelines everyone can follow to help co-workers, bosses and business partners from different nationalities to work together more effectively. For some organizations, this is the most they can and should invest in, while for others it could set the foundation before hiring outside help.

Especially in telephone, video, email communication, non-native English speakers often come across as very direct and maybe not as polite. Often, there is a simple reason for this and it has nothing to do with being impolite: If English is not your native language you often stick with the business English that you were taught in much more in detail than colloquial language and proverbial expressions of everyday life. On top of that, US work culture tends to be much more informal and relaxed than for example in Central Europe. (More on this topic in this excellent book: http://www.theglobalist.com/how-america-and-europe-are-alike/)

For many around the world, business emails and phone calls do not involve a great deal of small talk. But even a native culture and language does involve a lot of chit-chat before business, this small talk is often much harder than business conversations in a foreign language.

Another important point when trying to make conversation with a non-English native is that Americans have to remember that references to older TV shows, cartoon characters or songs of their childhood might not be immediately understood worldwide, even if your co-worker seems to speak English fluently. (There is a lot of debate about the amount of American cultural exports. If you are interested, this is a starting point: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/publication/2008/06/20080608094132xjyrrep0.2717859.html#axzz2yRQQH7Kq)

Before the advent of Netflix & Co., many people across the world only had a limited exposure to US shows, stars and music. Yes, the world does know about Baywatch, Friends and Mickey Mouse but not necessarily Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, The Brady Bunch or The Sound of Music. The kind of cultural exports received around the world is not always consistent, so before referencing something in a phone conversation or email, a little more explanation might be needed and very much appreciated.

All in all – be patient and try to relate to those with whom you are communicating – whether over the phone, via email/video or in person. Over time, you will learn the subtle nuances of communicating with professionals around the globe, and be seen as an International Communications Pro.

This article originally appeared on the Ladies DC Blog: http://www.ladiesdc.org/cross-cultural-communication-in-international-workplaces-part-1/2