Cross-Cultural Communication – How to Avoid Common Blunders (and Find the Right Floor)

by Louis Parks
  • Your Guide to Culturally Diverse Comms.
  • Think Different and Be Humble.
  • At Least It Isn't on Zoom.
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Cross-cultural communication occurs all around us and we’re forever going to be working with international, diverse teams. Here are some ideas about how to avoid putting your foot in it, how not to upset people, and perhaps how to make the best of it when it all goes wrong!

British vs. American English – An Example

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world. OK, you’re never going to encounter them all, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings. Imagine when this happens within the same language.

There’s an old saying by Irish playwright and Academy Award and Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” What does he mean? He means that even though the two countries speak the same language, they’re often speaking a very different language.

Here are just a couple of examples:

In the UK, the floors in a building are numbered like this: Ground floor, first floor, second floor, third floor, and so on. In America, they start with the first floor, then the second, then the third. i.e. The ground floor is called the “first floor”. Good luck scheduling a meeting. Almost makes you wish everything was done on Zoom.

A second one before we move on. Two people are talking about what great thieves they are. The first, a Brit, says, “I have never got caught.” The second, an American, says, “I have never gotten caught”. Weird. As an Anglo-Irishman – that’s one for you to Google – the latter is just plain strange and something Brits would never say. Cross-cultural, indeed.

What is “Polite”?

Firstly, let’s address a common issue – Politeness. What’s considered OK in one company or setting might not fly in another. Some businesses are fine with candid, blunt talk, others not so much. So, read the room. Before you jump on in, take your time, look around, watch how people are talking to one another. Mimic their approach, at least at the start, until you get a feeling for how things are.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

There’s loads of complex research that says, basically, that people who speak different languages think differently from those who don’t. They also might think differently across their various languages. Complicated. Only, it’s not. We don’t all think the same way, it’s that simple.

And, it’s impossible to understand how someone is thinking, especially if you’ve just met them. So, when creating and rehearsing a corporate presentation or talk, honest, direct feedback is an essential part of the process. Whether or not people appreciate receiving such feedback, the process always improves the outcome. Just circle back to the first point and take it slow and respectful.

Assuming You All Share Experiences

Acknowledge that your experience and background are not universal. We haven’t all had the same experiences, at all. Use phrasing such as, “I find that...,”, “In my experience,” or “I hear that as a…” These structures demonstrate that speakers and listeners have separate experiences. They remove any form of judgement. Go on to suggest alternatives and ask, “How does that sound to you?” The focus of your feedback remains on the message, and not on any individual.

When Feedback Doesn’t Get Through

You have value to add, which is not being taken on board. In cases like this, take some time to build trust with your colleagues. Some people think asking questions disrespects authority. Ask and answer questions yourself until others are comfortable participating. With a larger audience the same technique works. With cross-cultural differences in mind, you can begin a Q&A session with phrasing like, “Some of you may be wondering,” and then proceeding. You can also attribute a question to someone not in the room. “My staff asked me…” and responding. By initially playing both parts, you create a comfortable place for dialogue. Win-win.

Memory – A Funny Thing

Memory is very strange, and it’s tied to language and what we understand when communicating with someone. Also, consider all those true crime shows, witnesses to events often make the most basic errors in recall. These both mean you can be misunderstood even by engaged audiences, and, they might not remember what was happening in the same way you do. Using recaps helps. “First I suggested… using the example of…etc.” “We discussed next steps that included 1,2,3.” Recapping, or using confirming statements, can highlight a misunderstanding quickly. Then, it can be cleared up without offending any participant.

When All Else Fails

The goal of communication is to be understood, so the rule of putting the audience first always applies. To be understood by multicultural audiences or teams, use plain language, repetition, and illustrate points with examples. Industry specific vocabulary, forex , securities, trading, payments , et cetera, will be understood. It is often the less formal, more familiar, parts of speech that give the impression of rudeness and lead to misunderstandings. Avoid language specific idioms, cultural references, and jokes, you might be funny, but you might not be funny to someone listening in their second or third language. Keep it simple.

Finally, you may still fall into one of the inevitable cross-cultural pitfalls. When that happens, accept responsibility, apologize if necessary, and move on. Building a relationship with the listener(s) will ultimately cut across cultural differences, and create shortcuts in your future communication. And remember, it’s not about you, it’s about getting the message across.

Cross-cultural communication occurs all around us and we’re forever going to be working with international, diverse teams. Here are some ideas about how to avoid putting your foot in it, how not to upset people, and perhaps how to make the best of it when it all goes wrong!

British vs. American English – An Example

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world. OK, you’re never going to encounter them all, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings. Imagine when this happens within the same language.

There’s an old saying by Irish playwright and Academy Award and Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” What does he mean? He means that even though the two countries speak the same language, they’re often speaking a very different language.

Here are just a couple of examples:

In the UK, the floors in a building are numbered like this: Ground floor, first floor, second floor, third floor, and so on. In America, they start with the first floor, then the second, then the third. i.e. The ground floor is called the “first floor”. Good luck scheduling a meeting. Almost makes you wish everything was done on Zoom.

A second one before we move on. Two people are talking about what great thieves they are. The first, a Brit, says, “I have never got caught.” The second, an American, says, “I have never gotten caught”. Weird. As an Anglo-Irishman – that’s one for you to Google – the latter is just plain strange and something Brits would never say. Cross-cultural, indeed.

What is “Polite”?

Firstly, let’s address a common issue – Politeness. What’s considered OK in one company or setting might not fly in another. Some businesses are fine with candid, blunt talk, others not so much. So, read the room. Before you jump on in, take your time, look around, watch how people are talking to one another. Mimic their approach, at least at the start, until you get a feeling for how things are.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

There’s loads of complex research that says, basically, that people who speak different languages think differently from those who don’t. They also might think differently across their various languages. Complicated. Only, it’s not. We don’t all think the same way, it’s that simple.

And, it’s impossible to understand how someone is thinking, especially if you’ve just met them. So, when creating and rehearsing a corporate presentation or talk, honest, direct feedback is an essential part of the process. Whether or not people appreciate receiving such feedback, the process always improves the outcome. Just circle back to the first point and take it slow and respectful.

Assuming You All Share Experiences

Acknowledge that your experience and background are not universal. We haven’t all had the same experiences, at all. Use phrasing such as, “I find that...,”, “In my experience,” or “I hear that as a…” These structures demonstrate that speakers and listeners have separate experiences. They remove any form of judgement. Go on to suggest alternatives and ask, “How does that sound to you?” The focus of your feedback remains on the message, and not on any individual.

When Feedback Doesn’t Get Through

You have value to add, which is not being taken on board. In cases like this, take some time to build trust with your colleagues. Some people think asking questions disrespects authority. Ask and answer questions yourself until others are comfortable participating. With a larger audience the same technique works. With cross-cultural differences in mind, you can begin a Q&A session with phrasing like, “Some of you may be wondering,” and then proceeding. You can also attribute a question to someone not in the room. “My staff asked me…” and responding. By initially playing both parts, you create a comfortable place for dialogue. Win-win.

Memory – A Funny Thing

Memory is very strange, and it’s tied to language and what we understand when communicating with someone. Also, consider all those true crime shows, witnesses to events often make the most basic errors in recall. These both mean you can be misunderstood even by engaged audiences, and, they might not remember what was happening in the same way you do. Using recaps helps. “First I suggested… using the example of…etc.” “We discussed next steps that included 1,2,3.” Recapping, or using confirming statements, can highlight a misunderstanding quickly. Then, it can be cleared up without offending any participant.

When All Else Fails

The goal of communication is to be understood, so the rule of putting the audience first always applies. To be understood by multicultural audiences or teams, use plain language, repetition, and illustrate points with examples. Industry specific vocabulary, forex , securities, trading, payments , et cetera, will be understood. It is often the less formal, more familiar, parts of speech that give the impression of rudeness and lead to misunderstandings. Avoid language specific idioms, cultural references, and jokes, you might be funny, but you might not be funny to someone listening in their second or third language. Keep it simple.

Finally, you may still fall into one of the inevitable cross-cultural pitfalls. When that happens, accept responsibility, apologize if necessary, and move on. Building a relationship with the listener(s) will ultimately cut across cultural differences, and create shortcuts in your future communication. And remember, it’s not about you, it’s about getting the message across.

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