In modern society, corporate, nonprofit and governmental organizations are working in an environment where cultural understanding is crucial. As leaders, it is important to understand and develop the skills and insight needed to manage differences amongst cultures, especially in situations involving global teams or in training expatriate workers. Today’s global leaders often find themselves needing to negotiate agreements or develop communications with another culture. In all these situations, it is best to challenge one’s own assumptions and come equipped with genuine insight into the other party’s cultural practices.
1) Don’t Fear the Silence
In the U.S., it’s common to feel that silence indicates something has gone wrong – confusion or an unspoken, negative judgment. However, in many countries, particularly Asia, silence is a strategic tool for conveying respect. Significant periods of silence can follow questions, and silence is often used in place of what Americans term active listening cues. Perceiving this as awkward silence and continuing to talk can actually increase confusion.
2) Anticipate and Understand Disagreement
Different cultures have different ways of voicing disagreement. In Germany, for example, it is considered normal to be very frank and straightforward when expressing disagreement, whereas in America, this approach may be considered insensitive or disrespectful by some. On the other hand, people in many Latin American and Asian cultures are taught to be indirect about disagreement in order to preserve the other party’s reputation. Understanding how different cultures anticipate and understand disagreement can greatly help international professionals prevent confusion while keeping a mild disagreement from escalating.
3) Use Proper Protocols for Relationship Building
In the U.S., business meetings are often a component of relationship building. For these business meetings, it is an accepted practice to dash off a quick email intended to convey basic information. However, elsewhere around the world, even a brief message should be fully embedded with the proper context of the relationship, which often may mean incorporating appropriate honorifics. In addition, in many Middle Eastern countries, it may take many meetings to help build a relationship before diplomatic discussions even take place. It is important to recognize that in the Middle East, these meetings are not considered small talk or business discussions, but rather cultural protocol. To maintain a respectful relationship, global leaders should remain conscious of the cultural procedures for relationship building.
4) Be Attentive to Body Language
Body language differences can be very noticeable between cultures. This is perhaps most clear in greetings and leave-taking. While most cultures have adopted the handshake, physical contact may be prohibited in some situations, and traditional forms of greeting such as bowing are still appreciated in others. For example, some Latin American and Mediterranean cultures allow for a great deal of gesturing, which can be misinterpreted as anger by those unfamiliar with the culture. Remaining attentive to forms of body language can help prevent miscommunications from occurring, while also offering leaders more insight on whether their comments are properly understood.
5) Start with Open-Ended Questions
Simple yes or no questions can seem distant and might be perceived as disrespectful. Open-ended questions are not only more inviting, but they also help to prevent common miscommunications, such as assuming something is known or understood. Starting with how, why, what, where, and when allows the other parties in the discussion to state their interests in their own words, making their assumptions more explicit, even in guarded cultures. This helps everyone move toward agreeable solutions.
6) Maintain a Comfortable Pace of Communication
Even if everyone in a meeting is speaking the same language, sometimes it’s a good idea to take a deep breath and slow down. This is especially true when conducting a cross-cultural meeting, where non-native speakers may need additional time to process the nuances of what is being said. In some cultures, it’s embarrassing for the person who does not understand or must ask for information to be repeated since they must tacitly admit to a lower level of language skill. Even when professional interpreters are used, enunciating clearly will help them do their important work.
To be successful working in a cross-cultural environment, today’s global leaders need to continually expand their cultural competence. Whether working within the public, private or non-profit space, international professionals should work to understand and develop effective communication and human relations skills to increase their efficiency when working with global teams. Those with a well-developed cultural competence may prove to be more effective in leading and managing cross-cultural initiatives and impacting the international space.
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3 Situations Where Cross-Cultural Communications Breaks Down, Harvard Business Review
The Importance of Cross-Cultural Business, Entrepreneurs Organization
10 Critical Cross-Cultural Communication Tips, International Intxel Excellence