Increasingly, workplaces are global environments. Your implicit assumptions about the way things should be done may not be the same as those held by people from other cultures. Here's how to become aware of potential communication pitfalls and avoid them.
- Communicating with your colleagues can be complicated. Some are incredibly blunt and others are so subtle, it's hard to understand what they're getting at. Some only focus on the exact words you say, while others are constantly hunting underneath the surface, to see if there's a hidden meaning. We all have our own communication style and tendencies, but it gets more complicated when you interject culture into that mix. These days it's likely that you're working with teams and colleagues from around the world. You never want to stereotype. There are blunt communicators, for instance, who come from every country.
But it's also true, that certain cultures emphasize and elevate particular styles of communication. So it's more likely that someone from that culture might exhibit those tendencies. If you're not aware of those dynamics, you might risk offending someone or missing something crucial that they're trying to convey. So here are a few quick tips to sharpen your cross-cultural communication skills, with a hat tip to Brandeis professor, Andy Molinsky, a colleague with whom I've collaborated on a number of Harvard Business Review articles, about cross-cultural issues and personal branding.
First, it's useful to consider whether the culture your colleague is from emphasizes relationship building in business or straight-up transactions. You can find out specifics about various countries by reading a book or searching for some articles about business communication in that country. In the U.S. and Canada, for instance, you don't really have to have a personal relationship with the folks you're doing business with. In fact, some people even try to avoid getting too personal. As long as you conduct yourself fairly and ethically, you can get the deal done. But in many other areas, such as Asia, there's much more emphasize on personal relationship building.
The client may want to go out to dinner with you and hear about your family and your background. Business and personal life aren't so separate. The business deal is the culmination of building that personal connection. If you have a colleague with that world view, it may pay to take the time to get to know them. Invite them out for meals, learn about their family, and you'll build a lot more trust. Another key difference, which I alluded to early, is how direct someone's communication style is. Let's say your collaborating with people from another country. Some Europeans, for instance, have a very direct style.
This project is in trouble, it's not going to be ready on time. That's a point of pride for them, because it's super clear. You are not going to misunderstand that. Americans are more in the middle. I'm really concerned about the project, the timetable may slip. Meanwhile, some Asian cultures, would typically be more indirect, as it's important not to offend. The team is working very hard, but the timeline may be difficult. That's the same information, but conveyed in very different ways, and it may be easy to misinterpret, if you're not looking for it.
Another area to keep in mind is the culture's level of formality versus informality. In the U.S. or Australia, for instance, it's a pretty informal business culture. Certainly that's true in dress, where business casual has become far more common, and most employees don't have to wear full suits to work everyday. But it's also the overall approach. You're likely to be on a first name basis with everyone in your company, perhaps even the CEO. If you were to act too formal, or differential, people would think it was odd. But in some cultures, like China, there's much more deference to superiors, and you're likely to use their titles, like Chairman so-and-so.
Acting too informal might make you appear cocky or presumptuous, which you definitely want to avoid. We all come with different cultural expectations, set not just by our country, but by our family and our natural personalities. We're all different. But having an awareness of the cultural tendencies people are likely to possess, can help you communicate with more confidence, and increase the chances that your intended message will get heard.
- Determine the most appropriate form of communication in a business situation.
- Identify instances in which one mode of communication is preferable to another mode.
- Explain the process involved in interpreting nonverbal cues.
- Define terminology relating to interpersonal communication.
- Distinguish between various communication approaches with individuals from other cultures.
- Describe the factors that underlie interruptions during business meetings.
- Examine the most appropriate ways to accept criticism.