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The Impact of Cultural Differences on Communications

The Impact of Cultural Differences on CommunicationsCultural differences between team members increases the complexity or “thinking” required around communications. Additionally, when we add virtual team members to the mix, we increase the complexity even further!

Communication is affected by our ideas around hierarchy and how we expect decisions to be made or problems solved. For example, for some team members there is a belief that decisions are made and problems solved by those in leadership roles, with no input from team members. Others expect to have an input into decisions made and how problems will be solved. In some cultures, asking questions is not a common practice. If I am leading a team meeting with individuals with different expectations around hierarchy, I need to understand that in order to effectively ensure participation among the team members in the meeting.

Additionally, communication is affected by ethnocentrism – an assumption that our way of thinking, working and acting is superior to all others. Individuals who are ethnocentric measure everyone else against what they perceive to be right, normal or expected behaviors. It is difficult for someone who is ethnocentric to effectively lead a team and enable for participation and the feeling of inclusivity.

And, to complicate communications even further, human nature means we often stereotype and have prejudices that impact how we react to others.

These are all barriers and biases that impact how we interact and communicate with those around us! When we understand our barriers and our biases, we can better work with individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Now let’s add nonverbal communications into the mix! Nonverbal behaviors (facial expressions, body movements, eye movements) are important in intercultural communications and impact how effectively we are getting our message across to others.

Consider the following about yourself:

  • Are you non-confrontational and non-aggressive in making your point to others and being understood?
  • Are you aware of your stereotypes and prejudices?
  • Do you relate to people well overall?
  • Are you non-judgmental in your communications?
  • Are you flexible and adaptable, adjusting your communications based on other’s reactions
  • Are you respective of others’ communication styles?
  • Are you aware of verbal and nonverbal messages?
  • Do you use techniques such as restating, summarizing and questioning to ensure understanding?

Your ability to consider the cultural differences of those with whom you are communicating and use that information to craft messages that are inclusive, enables for you to better accomplish your goals and objectives and ensure you are understood. This requires you to have strong relationships with others, taking the time to understand who they are and how they interact most effectively. When we can communicate inclusively, we develop a much better understanding of how different cultures hear and process what we say and do.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A team member with whom you are speaking is just inches from your face.
  • One of your co-team leads refuses to look at you when you speak with him.
  • You send an email to a team member about a needed change to a recently made decision only to receive a response that a change is impossible.
  • You try to start a casual conversation with a team member and it is apparent the team member is uninterested and appears a bit put off by your conversation.
  • You asked one of the members of the team if the assignment was understood. She never said “no,” but submitted the final product incorrectly.

These scenarios are all based on cultural differences and our expectations of others based on our own biases and preferences.

How would you handle each of the scenarios presented? Shall your thoughts/suggestions in the Comments field below.