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« What do you really think about rules? | Main | Some things change… and some things stay the same »

Cross Cultural Communication - what about it?

After a recent workshop on Misunderstandings, Misperceptions, Missed Opportunities - the Challenges of Cross-Cultural Communication – I felt like I had just scratched the surface with a multi-lingual, multi-national, multicultural group. I would have loved to have the time to unpick the topic further with them all - so decided to explore it further via this blog.  

Yes, culture can interfere with communication in many ways. The misunderstandings, misperceptions and missed opportunities are real.

On reflection, I told myself that they already knew that – if not explicitly in relation to all the things we discussed, but they knew that intuitively. They had felt that in the different places they had lived, worked and built relationships; the boardrooms, schoolrooms, staff rooms, lunch rooms, living rooms, shops and cafes you’ve frequented. 

What do we do about it? 

My answer is we build our Cultural Intelligence –our CQ- to continuously check with - and grow - our hearts, our knowledge, our minds and our actions.  

We need to move away from a linear model of operating interculturally as Fons Trompenaars said in this video.  To do that, we’re not just giving ourselves the options of ‘do I speak loud or soft?' 'do I speak with short pauses or long pauses?' or 'do I think high context or low context?’.  Instead we want to build a flexible toolkit where we can operate comfortably in many ways - with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

Perhaps you might be thinking about some risks of this operating flexibly model– because some of them certainly go around in my head!


Risk of generalizing about cultural value differences

One of the big risks is over-generalising about cultural differences especially in relation to countries.  Erin Myers’ work is great.  I highly recommend everyone read her book, but we can never afford to think that everyone in a certain country will share the same mindsets or is likely to respond in the same way. 

We know from research that there are as many value differences within a country as there are between countries. Some people from The Netherlands may share a desire to communicate more directly but a specific individual from the Netherlands may not.  

We know that much diversity is hidden so we may not be able to see or gain any idea of how a person has ‘picked up’ values from a completely different culture.  Their country of origin may be very different to the ways they communicate.  Previous experiences, other family members, personality all play a role. 

Ultimately, we can be open to the person in front of us, noticing the ways they are communicating with us, noticing our responses to them.  Especially noticing any judgments or negativity we might be responding with (‘I wish she’d get to the point’, ‘this guy is so aggressive’, ‘speak up can’t you!’ ‘I was only being honest with you’, etc) and recognize how culture might be influencing those responses.  Our flexible toolkit can then help us to send messages or respond in ways that might be more effective for connecting with this person.


Risk of losing yourself in adapting to everyone else

But if we just adapt to everyone else aren’t we losing ourselves?  Many TCK’s often ask themselves – what are my preferences anyway?  We could all benefit from asking ourselves - Is there something that I consider integral to the way I communicate?  

Perhaps, for you, it is important to say ‘No’ if you are giving a negative message, but you can soften that negative message with providing context, giving an apology and a reason for those who communicate in an indirect style.  Or if you are more context driven you can be careful to accompany your context based message with explicit words to clarify your message, when you know you are dealing with a low context communicator.

What is core for you?  And to what extenet are you comfortable flexing around that core?

Julia Middleton has a great discussion of core and flex in her book. 

Risk of saying nothing.

There is always a risk we will be misunderstood.  Sometimes knowing how communication can go wrong makes us more aware of that risk.  And no one likes being misunderstood or saying the wrong thing – so we may be tempted to say nothing.  I've coached many people who are operating outside their home culture who are keeping a low profile, not saying too much, hoping to avoid misunderstandings.

Communication is a fragile process.  But also, a precious process that can take us to great places.  Each communication adds to a whole picture.  Our silence may mean something vital is missed for the whole group.  Our voice needs to be heard. 

Communication can build bridges but at times it takes some courage.  Stronger relationships, increased understanding, aggressions averted, pain avoided. We need to have the courage to communicate.  And the cultural intelligence to do so effectively.







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