How to perfect cross-cultural communication at the workplace

Jelena Fisic

Last updated on: May 18, 2022

Our culture, language, rules, and norms affect the way we communicate with each other. Different cultures have different rules and norms that we should take into account when communicating with people from different cultures. This is especially important at the workplace, since the way we communicate significantly affects the outcome of our business interactions. 

In this blog post, we will define cross-cultural communication, consider its basic elements, and have a look at the cultural barriers to successful communication. In the end, we will provide you with seven tips for improving cross-cultural communication at the workplace.

How to perfect cross-cultural communication at the workplace

What is cross-cultural communication in the workplace?

According to a recent survey of employees from 90 countries, 89 percent of white-collar workers at least occasionally work in virtual teams, where team members come from all around the world and rely on online tools for communication. This means that even the tiniest miscommunication can have major consequences, which is why it is essential to grasp the notion of intercultural communication, with the emphasis on cross-cultural communication in the workplace. 

Cross-cultural communication in the workplace deals with understanding different business customs, beliefs, and communication strategies. It occurs when people from different cultural backgrounds communicate with each other. Since we live in the age of globalization, it is only natural that employers are not exclusively confined to hiring people in their close proximity. 

As more and more people are working remotely, there are plenty of opportunities to work for companies from all around the world. When doing so, we should keep in mind that there are some cultural barriers to effective team communication. Precisely that is why we need a better understanding of cross-cultural communication, and this is when its fundamentals come into play. 

What are the basic elements of cross-cultural communication?

The easiest way to overcome hurdles and avoid misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication is to first get to know the basic elements of this type of communication. These are: awareness, preparation, language, humor, and openness. Let’s make an effort to become more cross-culturally competent, and find out something about each of these. 

Awareness 

First, we need to be aware that there are differences between cultures. This enables us to communicate with people from different cultures more effectively. 

Preparation  

After we’ve become aware of the cultural differences, we should make an effort to understand the culture of our business partners or coworkers. The failsafe way to achieve that is to research the said culture. So, take some time to read about that country’s rituals and business etiquette. For instance, should you address your international colleagues by their first name or not? 

Language  

Although language plays an important part in intercultural communication, speaking a foreign language fluently doesn’t guarantee that you’re culturally savvy, because native speakers use nuances in speaking that can only be understood if you understand their culture. If, on the other hand, you and your colleagues don’t share a common language, maybe the best solution is to use an interpreter. Just be sure you don’t get lost in translation.

Humor  

Even though humor is an inseparable part of our communication, when dealing with colleagues from different cultures, we should be careful how we joke around. Sometimes, jokes don’t translate well.

Openness 

Last but not least, openness is an integral part of communication. Feel free to ask for feedback and admit that you’re nervous. 

Now that we’re familiar with the fundamentals of cross-cultural communication, it’s time we illustrate our point with a few examples. 

Examples of cross-cultural communication

Our culture influences workplace dynamics. To improve cross-cultural communication at our workplace, we should acknowledge the cultural differences. Erin Meyer, the author of the book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, made a cultural evaluation framework, based on 8 scales:

  • Communicating: explicit vs. implicit way
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task vs. relationship
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoidant
  • Scheduling: structured vs. flexible
  • Persuading: deductive vs. inductive

Namely, she states that by comparing the relative positions of different nationalities along these scales, we can successfully decode how culture influences workplace dynamics.   

To better understand how all this works, we will consider examples of ineffective and effective cross-cultural communication. So, let’s dive in!

An example of ineffective cross-cultural communication

Picture this scenario: 

Linda Johnson, a senior marketing manager from New York is traveling to Paris, for a meeting with her French associates. During her flight, she is going through her notes and presentation for the last time before the big meeting tomorrow morning. Everything’s on point. She covered all the issues and is looking forward to exchanging ideas with her colleagues from overseas. 

Cut to the next day. It’s time for the big meeting. A little bit jet-lagged, but still eager to do business with her French colleagues, Linda enters the conference room. Claude Truffaut, her coworker from Paris, welcomes her with a peck on the cheek. “What’s going on?” Linda thinks to herself. Did he misinterpret something she said in her email? 

Actually, Linda has nothing to worry about. Namely, kissing a business associate is an acceptable greeting in Paris, although it’s considered inappropriate in the U.S. 

So, what should they have done differently, to avoid any confusion? The answer is straightforward. As suggested above, all she had to do was prepare herself for a different culture, by reading a bit about French business people and their business etiquette. Needless to say, Claude should have done the same, so as not to startle his coworker. Better luck next time, people! 

An example of effective cross-cultural communication

Let’s look at another example of cross-cultural communication at the workplace:

Klaus Schmidt, a project manager at an IT company from Leipzig, is expecting a new addition to their team – Maria Silva, an IT engineer from Rio de Janeiro. Finally, Maria has arrived and Klaus has prepared a meet and greet for her. He invited all the colleagues from her future team, and they can’t wait to meet her. However, just as the meeting had started and Klaus began explaining the project to Maria, she interrupted him and took control of the meeting. Everyone apart from Klaus was flabbergasted by her behavior. Why was Klaus so cool and collected? 

Well, because he had done his homework. He has done some research about business etiquette in Brazil and knows that Brazilians are at ease with overlapping conversations and interruptions. As a matter of fact, they see these interruptions as signs of engagement. So, he took Maria’s butting in as a good sign. He knows it means she is proactive and eager to work. Kudos to you, Klaus! 

That being said, it’s time to investigate why cross-cultural communication may present a challenge at a workplace.

Why cross-cultural communication may be a challenge?

All of us practice culture at different levels. In our everyday endeavors, we have to take into account the culture of the community we grew up in and our work culture. This means that we are constantly confronted with the clash of cultures – our own and the majority culture that we are exposed to. These clashes can leave us feeling frustrated and misunderstood, especially when we’re dealing with colleagues from different countries. Having that in mind, let’s take a look at some obstacles to successful cross-cultural communication.

Obstacles to a successful cross-cultural communication

A pioneer in the field of intercultural communication, LaRay M. Barna identified six stumbling blocks on the road to a successful intercultural exchange: assumption of similarities, language differences, nonverbal misinterpretations, preconceptions, and stereotypes, tendency to evaluate, and high anxiety.

  1. Assumption of similarities: This stumbling block refers to our inclination to think that our behavior is universal. We tend to overlook the fact that people had been exposed to different cultural influences, which shaped them.
  2. Language differences: Sometimes, even when we share a common language with our international coworkers, some misunderstandings are possible. This is due to the fact that words have different meanings in various contexts, and some of them are maybe elusive to a not-so-fluent speaker.
  3. Nonverbal misinterpretations: We know that our body language speaks volumes. The trouble is that the meaning of our body language differs from culture to culture. Even a simple nod of the head means “Yes” in some cultures and “No” in others.
  4. Preconceptions and stereotypes: These stumbling blocks interfere with our ability to objectively assess the situation. They are not easy to overcome and are fed by our tendency to notice only those pieces of information that correspond to our existing view of the world.
  5. Tendency to evaluate: Another obstacle to a better understanding of one another is our habit to analyze other people, without taking into account why they are acting or communicating in a particular way.
  6. High anxiety: Sometimes, interactions with cultures we’re not so familiar with bring about anxiety because we’re not sure how we’re supposed to act in their presence. 

Why is cross-cultural communication important at the workplace? 

Modern technology made opening up new marketplaces and promoting businesses to new locations and cultures possible. Apart from that, remote-first work culture is gaining popularity, in part due to the current pandemic. Since it is now easier to work with people remotely, employers can hire people from all around the globe, so cross-cultural communication is becoming the new norm. 

Generally speaking, a basic understanding of cultural diversity is the key if you want to close an international business deal. We reached out to dr. Sara Murdock, a co-author of the podcast The Road to Sustainability, to pick her brain about the importance of cross-cultural communication at the workplace. Dr. Murdock stated that cross-cultural communication is a major missing link in team effectiveness and inclusion. She elaborated on that, by saying that the language barrier is not the only challenge we are facing while dealing with an international work team. The fear of offending someone and fear of being wrong are also great barriers to successful communication. This is precisely why we should be careful, for even a minor misunderstanding could cost you a contract. 

She concludes: 

On a planet of 8 billion people and countless sub-cultures, there’s no one correct way to communicate cross-culturally, but human beings are wired to respond to genuine bids for connection.

Since miscommunication can make or break a business deal, its importance is crystal clear. Hence, to improve team effectiveness and make all the team members feel included and appreciated, we should strive towards better intercultural communication. Therefore, we offer you some advice for perfecting cross-cultural communication at your workplace.

7 tips for improving cross-cultural communication at the workplace

Not everyone is a people person, and making other people feel comfortable in your company doesn’t come naturally to all of us. Still, a good atmosphere is more than desirable not only on social occasions but also at the workplace. Perfecting cross-cultural communication at the workplace is easier than you think. All it takes are a couple of tips, and you’ll be a master of communication in no time. 

#1 — Maintain etiquette

When preparing for a business meeting with international colleagues, the first order of business for you should be to research a bit about their culture. Find out something about their business etiquette, so you could follow its rules and avoid misunderstandings and embarrassing situations. Do in-depth research about the levels of formality used in business communication in their country or countries and behave accordingly. For example, if you’re doing business with Italians, do your best to look presentable, since dressing well in their culture is a sign of success. 

An extra tip: avoid number 17 when proposing Italians with anything, since this number is considered to bring bad luck. Similarly, if doing business with Japanese colleagues, avoid number 9. Bear in mind that other cultures may also have similar aversions towards numbers.

#2 — Avoid slang

There is no place for slang in business communication, because its use may make you seem immature and not serious about sealing the deal. Apart from this, maybe more importantly, not all the team members might understand you. Even if they speak your language, maybe they are not familiar with the current jargon. After all, there are some rules in business communication that you should follow, and the use of slang isn’t among those rules. So, we strongly recommend that you don’t use informal language or colloquialisms, because you don’t want to end up confusing or, worse, offending your international colleagues. Leave being cool for your out-of-work social circles. 

#3 — Speak slowly and clearly

Even if your international colleagues are fluent in the language you’re using in your business communication, be sure to speak a bit more slowly than usual. Try to articulate words more carefully so that your colleagues have no trouble understanding you. In the same fashion, avoid using long sentences and give your colleagues a chance to digest what you’ve said by making short breaks. Still, you should be careful not to speak too slowly, for it might seem patronizing. On the other hand, if your colleagues are speaking too quickly and inarticulately, don’t hesitate to ask them to slow down or, if necessary, repeat what they’ve said. Like we mentioned above, openness is an important part of intercultural communication, so feel free to say if something bothers you.

#4 — Avoid closed questions

When interacting with your international colleagues, avoid asking them closed questions — i.e., the so-called Yes/No questions. In some countries, such as India and Japan, saying “No” is considered rude, so you will probably always get a “Yes” as an answer, even if your conversational partner doesn’t mean it. In contrast, by asking open-ended questions, you’re encouraging your colleagues to be more creative and offer solutions that you might not have predicted. Dr. William Lane, a special education consultant, even suggests that closed questions stop the conversation and argues that open-ended questions improve communication. 

#5 — Be careful with humor

Have you heard this one before: A guy walks into a bar and ruins a business deal by telling a joke that offends his coworker? It doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe that’s because humor rarely has a place in business — at least not in international business. Apart from the fact that some jokes usually don’t translate well, by telling them you might even inadvertently offend your international colleagues, because of some cultural differences unbeknownst to you. So, why risk it? After all, humor is notoriously culture-specific. Therefore, if you’re not sure that your humor is universal and that it will be understood, it’s better to skip the joke you heard the previous night in a pub. Once again, save it for your friends outside the workplace — the only risk you take with your friends is them thinking that your joke is lame. 

#6 — Consider any special needs of team members  

Keep in mind that some of your coworkers live on the other side of the world. So, be mindful of a possible difference in time zones with your international coworkers and choose a method of communication accordingly. Maybe the best solution for this problem would be asynchronous communication. Apart from that, bear in mind that your coworkers might celebrate different holidays. Accordingly, be aware of other religions and cultures among your colleagues, but don’t forget that religion is a personal affair and that some team members might not want to disclose this aspect of their life.  

An example from Pumble team chat app that shows a misunderstanding due to the cultural differences in celebrating certain holidays
An example from Pumble team chat app that shows a misunderstanding due to the cultural differences in celebrating certain holidays

#7 — Be supportive

Last but not least, be supportive of your international colleagues. For intercultural communication to be effective, all team members need to feel comfortable. So, treat your colleagues with respect, communicate clearly, and encourage them when needed. Especially in a remote work environment, it’s important that your team feels connected. If you give your best, you’ll form a strong professional bond with your colleagues — which will increase team trust. After all, you’ll agree that trust is a building block of any relationship, including a professional one.

Wrapping up 

Since more and more people are working in international teams, cross-cultural communication at the workplace has become the new norm. There are, of course, some obstacles to successful cross-cultural communication, the most prominent ones being language and cultural differences. Since miscommunication can negatively affect your business, it is crucial to get a hang of this type of communication and avoid any misunderstandings. If you follow our tips for perfecting cross-cultural communication at the workplace, success is guaranteed. Just be open to new ideas and embrace new cultures. 

Author: JelenaFisic

Jelena Fisic is a writer and researcher, constantly reading and broadening her knowledge about communication and collaboration. As a long-time remote worker, she is eager to share her experiences and gathered knowledge, and give you some tips for improving team communication and collaboration skills while working from home.

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