5 Expert Methods To Master Cross-Cultural Communication
We live in a world where migration happens on a much larger scale than ever before. We have relationships with people from other countries and other cultures. I know many people that work with people from different cultures, and I know that it can be challenging.
I often get requests on how to engage successfully with people from other cultures. Most of the challenges people experience come from misunderstandings. Of course, misunderstanding can happen in communication for many reasons. Different views on life, politics, religion, or merely different preferences when interacting.
Thus, this article attempts to combat common challenges in cross-cultural interactions. I want to focus on why some problems exist and give suggestions on how to deal with it professionally.
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I learned about cross-cultural communication when I was in college. Most of the communication theory is based on Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, 2010. Their book is called “Communication between cultures.” Another book I frequently use on interpersonal communication is called “Looking out looking in.”
Let’s look at some basic areas that often cause a divide in cross-cultural communication. I don’t like to state a problem without presenting some sort of solution. Thus, as I describe the problems, I will also offer advice on how to tackle them.
1. Sharing Personal Information
In conversations with people from another culture, do you sometimes feel that you are hitting a wall of awkwardness or silence? Did the person back out or stop engaging while you were sharing your personal life? Culturally, this could be that their idea of privacy is much different from yours. Many Asian cultures are very private when it comes to family. This means they seldom share “unnecessary” details with non-family members.
I grew up around a lot of Asian Muslims. I know and have experienced that their culture considers family a private matter. If you are seeking interaction with a person from such culture you want to keep that in mind. You might not want to start the conversation by sharing about family-related topics. Also, you should reconsider asking questions about the person’s family unless you have been to their home. I know this is very different in Western culture. We love to share with our family and it is considered polite to ask about family members. “How is your mom?” “Do you have any children?”
Sharing our private lives is considered to build trust in Western culture. As you can see this could easily lead to awkward interactions because we have different ways of building trust. If a person considers questions about family a violation of their private domain it can begin the conversation with a rough start. Especially if the other person is trying to bond with questions such as a spouse or kids.
Avoid too private conversation subjects
Try starting the conversation with something “light.” You could share about your favorite sports team, the weather, or recommend a local restaurant. I know that might seem unaffectionate to you, but test it out and see if it works.
As with all things these are guidelines. All people are unique and have unique responses to interaction and bonding. Considering your cultural interaction, respect the privacy limits of the culture you are meeting.
2. Appropriate Touch
A friendly notch on the arm. Is it a sign of close personal relationships, a listening gesture, flirting, or a violation of a person’s body? Of course, I’m not saying that a friendly touch is a harassment. But, your culture’s norms could also play a role in how you perceive a touch.
Personally, I am a big fan of physical indicators of confirmation in interactions. I like to gesture that I am paying attention with a little touch on the arm. To me, it is an approving gesture. This indicator seems to be much more common in Western culture.
It is less common in other cultures. In a conversation, a good way to know if it’s considered appropriate is to observe how the other person. If they are touching, and you are receiving a friendly vibe, then you’re fine. Otherwise, try to refrain from it.
I have traveled a lot and some forms of touch have surprised me in certain cultures. In the Pacific Islands holding hands with a person is not necessarily a romantic gesture. It could also be a sign to all others that the people holding hands were in a private conversation and they didn’t want to be interrupted. A little bit like a sign on the door that says “no room service.”
Also in some countries, it is normal to sit VERY close to strangers on public transportation. In the West people often prefer a little bit of personal space.
3. Look me in the eyes
Is eye contact a sign of attentiveness or is it an attitude that challenges dominance?
In Western culture, we teach our children to look people in the eyes when talking to them. Of course it can become a little too intense, but generally, eye contact is considered respectful. As a matter of fact, lack of eye contact could indicate that the person is hiding something or lying.
Differently, some Indian American cultures consider direct eye contact rude. Especially when listening to an elder. Many Asian cultures are similar. Eye contact is a sign of challenging authorities. Don’t assume people aren’t listening if they are not making eye contact. It could be they are showing you respect by not remaining eye contact.
4. Language, please
If you’ve ever learned a new language, you’ve experienced challenges and uncertainty. Communicating in a foreign language can be draining and frustrating. Now, imagine a waterfall of words coming at you with the speed of a tornado. THAT is how some people feel when they speak your native language. Consider the speed you speak in and how advanced your vocabulary is. Use simple words. But don’t change your sentence structure to something that is grammatically incorrect. Refrain from mumbling, slurring or whispering as it makes it harder to understand.
The sentence I use the most when communicating cross-culturally is: “Am I making sense?” or “Is what I’m saying easy to follow?” This places the responsibility of understanding on me and not the other person. It is the person communicating’s responsibility to making themselves understood.
It can be a challenge for a people with limited language to explain that your communication doesn’t make sense to them. Ask for feedback to ensure that you are both on the same pace.
5. How much does time mean to you?
Have you ever experienced showing up on time but the person from another culture is way late? Time has very different value in cultures. This is typically the first thing people register as different when they travel. In Western society “time is money,” ergo time is highly valued. In other cultures, events happen and once the event has come to an end you can move on to the next event. These two mindsets have conflicting natures.
I recently stumbled upon a study about time. The study suggests that in Western culture we consider a person to be late after 5 minutes. Opposite, in Pacific Island culture you are late after 2-3 hours. Understanding other cultural perspectives is the first step to a functioning relationship. Cultural differences might not justify being late, but understanding cultures can better relationships.
I know some people are just awful at being on time. If you don’t think it is a cultural matter and it is something that means a lot to you then you should address it.
Just the tip of the cross-cultural iceberg
There are plenty other areas of cultural differences that can complicate communication. These are some of them:
- Team player vs. single player
- Religion and ideology
- Beliefs about life and death
- Hierarchy and leadership structure
The list is unending. Regardless, if you are looking to understand and better cross-cultural relationship my list is a good place to start. Otherwise, if you are looking for tools for conflict resolution you should really read this blog series I wrote on that. Please share the article with friends and family you think would like it. Share your thoughts below.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is meant as help and is for general informational purposes only. Meaning, do not consider this as legal advice or a consultation. To clarify, I am a communication strategist and consultant with a degree in Communications, and I teach on conflict resolution and communication skills. Surely, I love what I do, and my advice is always based on either textbook communication theory or empirical evidence. However, I cannot be held liable for how you apply my advice. Without a doubt, I hope you well and success in applying the views I share on this blog.