Communicating Across Cultures
By Debra Wallin

In our competitive global marketplace we can’t afford to create a slow-down in productivity because we misunderstand someone’s intentions. Building trust is essential for smooth facilitation and problem solving. It is human nature to distrust someone different from ourselves. It’s not that we are bad people for doing so, it’s usually as simple as not understanding why someone does something we wouldn’t do.

For example, in the American culture we expect people to look us in the eyes when we are talking to them. If they don’t, we begin to judge that person as evasive, not showing us respect, and maybe even being untrustworthy. In many Asian cultures, diverting one’s eyes or looking down is a sign of deference and respect and a message that the person is listening intently to the speaker. Put two people together from these different cultures and it’s quite possible they will make negative judgments about one another. Direct eye contact to the American means attention and esteem, to the Asian it means aggressiveness and intimidation. This misunderstanding could cause these teammates to be unable to work together successfully.

Cultural conditioning goes beyond language. It includes our perception of time, personal space, and the manner you address people. If you experience signs of discomfort from yourself or the person you are working with, it could be a signal that there are cultural differences in play. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. 1. Do I understand my own cultural background and conditioning?
  2. 2. Do I approach interpersonal encounters on the job with an awareness of how differences may affect communication?
  3. 3. Do I have the attitude that ‘different’ is bad, inferior, or wrong?
  4. 4. Am I aware of ways that I sterotype others?
  5. 5. Am I willing to adjust my communication in order to be effective?
  6. 6. Are you drawing incorrect conclusions?
  7. 7. Have you tried to recognize cultural communication styles that are different from your own to alleviate frustration?
  8. 8. Have you misinterpreted intentions, which has caused you to view a person negatively?
  9. 9. Are you aware that you are filtering your interaction through your own cultural background?

Confusion, anxiety and anger are signals of cultural clashes. If you experience this, stick with it and try to determine the source of those feelings. Do not write people off as difficult until you have at least asked them about their behavior. Do not ignore or exclude someone because understanding and making yourself understood seems too difficult.

Changing Communication

If you are experiencing unexpected behavior, it is likely the other culture is different and you should find out the cultural context behind the behavior.

What You Can Do

Capture what was said.
Clarify non-verbal cues.
Confirm agreements.

Building relationships is key to our success. That starts with communication. We have our own filters from which we view the world we live in and how we perceive other people. We need to remember that everyone else ALSO has their own filters they view us through. Once we take the time to find out someone’s reasons for behaving a certain way, it paves a path for which solid communications and teamwork can be built.

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