Although business professionals across the globe converse face-to-face or screen-to-screen, it doesn’t mean that their particular cultural mores and language discrepancies won’t interfere with their ability to effectively communicate. In order to manage an international project with multiple teams, complete an acquisition or otherwise manage a prosperous business, it’s critical to be sensitive to other cultures and improve business communication skills to fit the conversation.
A recent article in Chief Learning Officer magazine argues that there are a number of flaws in the way that many businesses undertake their cultural sensitivity training. Improperly designed cultural training programs can create a larger divide by adding to the “us versus them” narrative that the training should dispel. Many programs are more focused on avoiding offensiveness rather than successfully navigating different cultures to advance business goals. The author, Susana Rinderle, advocates for more training that stimulates “authentic relationships” and “effective communication.”
Follow these tips for improving effective communication skills across cultures.
Be Aware of Cultural Timelines
Project managers and other business personnel should be conscious of what their foreign partners’ calendars look like. Certified IT project manager and project management instructor at Merit Career Development Prince Knight explains that project timelines should acknowledge cultural holidays and other periods, otherwise there may be delays and missed deadlines that better cultural awareness could avoid. As examples, Knight notes that the entire month of August as a popular vacation time in Europe, Christmas is an extended holiday period in Scandinavia and in the U.S., and September as a busy back-to-school time.
Knight also advises people to acknowledge cultural differences within their own country, since many U.S. companies have diverse employees from different cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds.
Strive Toward Universal Communication
To ensure effective communication, businesses should work toward succinct, universal speech and writing that is consistent and identified so that all team members understand. Many companies conduct business in English or other major languages. However, fewer problems arise from language issues than from idioms or expressions that are “lost in translation” or misunderstood. A famous gaffe involved American and British businesspeople negotiating an agreement. All was going well until the Americans attempted to wrap things up by asking for a “John Hancock” on the document. The British were confused. “Who is this, John Hancock?” they said.
Frequently checking with cross-cultural counterparts and recapping the conversation can help ensure that everyone is on the same page and there won’t be misunderstandings, but it’s also smart to eliminate some common mistakes.
- Cut the small talk - Although chit-chat is common in offices around the U.S., small talk in another culture or language may just become confusing and not the ice breaker you’d hoped for, Boston World Partners explains in an article posted to Boston.com. “The weather is not the catch all topic you think it is, neither are sports,” the article advises. “Both are a favorite way to start a meeting here in Boston (It’s 100 degrees! Did you see the game last night?) But if you’re doing business in a climate with very little variation or extremes, the weather is probably not something people naturally discuss. It’s also worth noting baseball is a sport where we play a world championship against ourselves and possibly Toronto. Once you leave the continent, most people just don’t care.”
- Avoid idioms, analogies and phrases - Speaking of sports, there are a number of sports analogies that can easily play into casual business conversations, but when you’re working with other cultures where a given sport isn’t popular, talking about “hitting a homerun” can come off as confusing or—worse—potentially insulting. Before you try to explain your thoughts or ideas, think through what you’re going to say and filter it for any https://www.businessenglishresources.com/learn-english-for-business/student-section/business-vocabulary/most-common-business-idioms/. It’s also a good idea to do some research on the other cultures’ common phrases and misconceptions—there’s a lot to learn from past business embarrassments.
- Prepare for varied emotions or behaviors - Just as different cultures have various expressions for common thoughts or events related to popular culture, people also express themselves and their body language differently. The University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium explains that in some cultures behavioral constraint expectations can make “reading” another person difficult, while in other cultures people may react more strongly when arguing or debating than expected based on the cultural norms.
One of the most effective ways to improve cross-cultural communication is to take an analytical look at what makes two cultures different. Merit Career Development’s 2-day Cross-Cultural Communications course tackles this head-on by exploring the Big Five culture differences exposed by business: time, space, things, friendship and agreements.
By looking at these differences in small groups and analyzing their effects on thought, emotion and communication, people are more truly culturally sensitive and can have a more fruitful dialogue with other cultures.