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Communicating Across Cultural Boundaries

“The problem with communication is the illusion that is has been accomplished.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Communicating across cultural boundaries is not an easy task, nor one that should be taken lightly. Communication encompasses many elements related to culture, including non-verbal communications, phrases we use, and attempting to manage impressions others have of us. These all contribute to difficulty in communicating across cultural boundaries. Communication is also impacted by an individual’s ideas around hierarchy. And add virtual communications into the mix and you have yet another layer of complexity! While communication is essential to working with others, it can drive a wedge between team members that come from culturally diverse backgrounds without sufficient knowledge and preparation.

Intercultural communications is a process in which messages created by one individual from one culture must be processed and interpreted by another individual from another culture. Non-verbal behaviors are important in intercultural communications. These include facial expressions, body movements, eye movements and tone of our voice. Non-verbal communication has the greatest potential for misunderstanding because of such differences from culture to culture.  Long periods of silence during conversations, apologies rather than confronting others, lack of emotional expressiveness and subtle non-verbal signals (like raising an eyebrow) can be interpreted very differently from one culture to the next. There are individuals who are usually quiet and thoughtful, thinking carefully before contributing; others are loud and outspoken, sharing information freely and frequently.

Individuals from the United States, for example, tend to be more outspoken and very direct in the approach and often find difficulty in working with individuals from Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia who tend to be more indirect in their approach and soft-spoken.  In the United States, we encounter many individuals who “talk with their hands” – using hand gestures to make a point; in Hong Kong exaggerated hand gestures or dramatic facial expressions are distracting and may be considered rude.

In some cultures, asking questions is not a common practice. It may be seen as being critical of others or showing foolishness because a question must be asked. For example, let’s assume you are working on an initiative with colleagues from Hong Kong. You have a meeting coming up within a few days where you will be presenting a plan for moving forward with the initiative. You want their input. In order to get the information you need, it would be wise to provide the presentation materials and back up data ahead of time for their review stipulating that after the official presentation you would like their questions, comments and opinions on the data presented. In this way, you prepare your audience and, since they have been encouraged and the expectation is set, you increase their participation.

Our cultural background and our individual backgrounds greatly affect how we communicate and express ourselves. When working within a cultural diverse setting, it is absolutely essential to truly listen and attempt to understand what is being communicated and how it is being communicated. By paying attention, we can better understand where a softer approach will work better than a more direct approach.

Are you and your organization interested in learning more about how to work more effectively across cultural boundaries? If so, contact Gina Abudi at Abudi Consulting Group to learn more about our one day workshop: Cultural Diversity: Working Across Boundaries. This popular one-day workshop is available both on-site at a client’s location or via our virtual classroom.

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