Top Ten Tips for... Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

Top Ten Tips for... Effective Cross-Cultural Communication

In today’s diverse workplace, communication issues can take on an added dimension of complexity. Every culture has its own set of tacit assumptions and tendencies when it comes to face-to-face interactions, and trying to get your point across effectively can sometimes be difficult. Even when a language barrier doesn’t exist, cross-cultural communication can be challenging. Here are our top ten tips for effective cross-cultural communication:

1. Maintain etiquette  

Many cultures have specific etiquette around the way they communicate. Before you meet, research the target culture, or if time allows, do some cross cultural training. For example, many cultures expect a degree of formality at the beginning of communication between individuals. Every culture has its own specific way of indicating this formality: ‘Herr’ and ‘Frau’ in Germany, reversing family and given names in China and the use of ‘san’ in Japan for men and women etc. Be aware of these familiarity tokens and don’t jump straight to first name terms until you receive a cue from the other person to do so.

2. Avoid slang 

Not even the most educated non-native English speaker will have a comprehensive understanding of English slang, idioms and sayings. They may understand the individual words you have said, but not the context or the meaning. As a result you could end up confusing them or at worst, offending them.

3. Speak slowly

Even if English is the common language in a cross cultural situation it’s not a good idea to speak at your normal conversational speed. Modulating your pace will help, as will speaking clearly and pronouncing your words properly. Break your sentences into short, definable sections and give your listener time to translate and digest your words as you go. But don’t slow down too much as it might seem patronising. If the person you’re speaking to is talking too quickly or their accent is making it difficult for you to understand them, don’t be afraid to politely ask them to slow down too.

4. Keep it simple

In a cross cultural conversation there’s no need to make it harder for both of you by using big words. Just keep it simple. Two syllable words are much easier to understand than three syllable words, and one syllable words are better than two syllable words. Say “Please do this quickly” rather than “Please do this in an efficacious manner.”

5. Practice active listening

Active listening is a very effective strategy for improving cross cultural communication. Restate or summarise what the other person has said, to ensure that you have understood them correctly, and ask frequent questions. This helps build rapport and ensures that important information doesn’t get missed or misunderstood.

6. Take turns to talk

Make the conversation flow more freely by taking it in turns to speak. Make a point and then listen to the other person respond. Particularly when people are speaking English as their second language it’s better to talk to them in short exchanges rather than delivering a long monologue that might be difficult for them to follow.

7. Write things down

If you’re not sure whether the other person has understood you properly, write it down to make sure. This can be particularly helpful when discussing large figures. For example, in the UK we write a billion as 1,000,000,000 but in the USA, it’s written as 1,000,000,000,000.

8. Avoid closed questions

Don’t phrase a question that needs a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. In many cultures it is difficult or embarrassing to answer in the negative, so you will always get a ‘yes’ even if the real answer is ‘no’. Ask open-ended questions that require information as a response instead.

9. Be careful with humour

Many cultures take business very seriously and believe in behaving professionally and following protocol at all times. Consequently they don’t appreciate the use of humour and jokes in a business context. If you do decide to use humour make sure it will be understood and appreciated in the other culture and not cause offence. Be aware that British sarcasm usually has a negative effect abroad.

10. Be supportive

Effective cross cultural communication is about all parties feeling comfortable. In any conversation with a non-native English speaker, treat them with respect, do your best to communicate clearly and give them encouragement when they respond. This will help build their confidence and trust in you.

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