Cross-Cultural Communication Tips (part 1 of 3)

Many of you have been asking for more detailed How-Tos around cross-cultural communication. So I am creating a 3-part conversation about how we can all get better at this.

If you have faced any of these challenges, keep reading:

  • You can’t seem to get accountability from colleagues across the world.

  • Someone says, “Yes” and agrees to a project deliverable, but when it comes time to delivering you find out they aren’t on board with the idea/project.

  • You have been in some awkward lost-in-translation moments.

  • You find it hard to connect and build trust on your remote teams.

There is no simple solution to a lot of this and when offering suggestions on cross-cultural communication, we have to be very careful that we don’t put people in boxes. Just because we heard something about their culture or work environment, does not mean it is accurate or that we can categorize everyone into a neat box.

That being said, from my research and international experience, I have put together a list of ideas to think about as we continue to work and live in an ever-global and diverse world.

The most important thing, in my opinion, when it comes to cross-cultural communication, is recognize your assumptions, then put them to the side and listen with a truly open-mind and heart.

Oh, and, give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t give up.

Some other tips to consider:

  1. Learn your coworkers' names. Learn how to pronounce names correctly and be careful that you don’t confuse people’s names who are from underrepresented ethnicities and cultures at work. If you can't pronounce a colleague's name, ask them how to say it. Don't point out that their name is hard-to-pronounce, foreign or unfamiliar to you.

  2. LISTEN if and when someone wants to share things about their culture and identify. Notice the keyword here is LISTEN. Don’t assume someone is not American, or not from the country you live in, based on the color of their skin, an accent, or the way they look or speak. This is what is called a micro-aggression. For example, when people ask, “Where are you from?” to someone based on how they look or speak, this has an implied assumption that, “You are different, therefore you must not belong here.”  

What to do instead?

  • Allow the other person to share information about themselves if and when they feel comfortable.

  • If you want to know more about them, ask a broader question, such as:

“Tell me more about yourself outside of work.”

This gives the person an opportunity to explain their identity and what is important to them on their own terms.

3. Develop a “local” friendship. Build trust and a friendship with someone in your company who is based and from one of the countries you work with. They can help you learn the ins and outs of their culture, as you navigate through ways that different cultures “get things done,” communicate with each other, and do business.

4. Be aware of how your culture affects others. We all develop cultural behaviors, language choices and gestures that can cause confusion or misunderstanding. For example, a nod

  • Research and identify what your cultural habits are (stay tuned for more on this in Part Two)

  • Write them down

  • Host a group discussion with your team to unpack how cultural habits may be a barrier to communication

There is so much “chewy” stuff about this topic and we are just getting started. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 as we continue the conversation.

And in the meantime, check out these resources: