Successfully Communicating Across Cultures

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Language and social norms
change across the globe.
Employees need targeted
training to effectively
communicate across
cultures.

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By Ave Rio

I

n early 2016, Emma Seddon picked up her life in the U.K. and moved across the world to China on a three-year international secondment in her role as talent development manager at Jaguar Land Rover. Her colleagues who had previously completed long-term assignments in China warned of “shang-highs and shang-lows,” and gave her as much advice as possible.

Of course, some things must be learned on one’s own. Seddon recalls trying to order noodles without meat in her best Mandarin and the server responding with a stream of Chinese she couldn’t understand, to which she said she was left noodle-less, hungry and frustrated. At work, language differences also posed challenging. Seddon said meetings would often slip into Chinese, which put her at a disadvantage if she missed chunks of the discussion. “I’ve found that making an effort to learn the language really helps; local colleagues appreciate this, and it can be a good way to break back into the conversation,” she said. For example, she might say “I heard you say ‘yi bai wu,’ is that 150?” “Then they will laugh as I will have undoubtedly got it wrong, and switch back to speaking in English,” she said.

Companies with a global footprint can gain a competitive edge if they are able to harness and leverage the international diversity inherent in their global markets, but the challenges are significant.

While language is a clear barrier in those situations, Seddon encountered many nonverbal cultural differences at work. One challenge she didn’t anticipate was that many decisions are made outside of formal meetings. “Lunch is a big deal in China; everyone leaves the office between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. and goes to the canteen or a local restaurant and the in-meeting discussion will continue during this time,” she said. “As a foreigner this can leave you one step behind, and so it’s incredibly important to develop some close relationships with colleagues who can help to keep you in the loop.”

Seddon said even when employees do understand and appreciate cultural norms, there is always a risk that they default to their natural style when under pressure, which is common in a fast-paced work environment. She said she often sees this around meeting etiquette. “In China, it’s not seen as impolite to continue a conversation on your phone during a meeting, while Western colleagues see this as a lack of respect,” she said. “Similarly, I often hear Western colleagues using technical or colloquial British terms or speak rapidly, which can make it difficult for Chinese colleagues to follow the discussion.”

Seddon said companies with a global footprint can gain a competitive edge if they are able to harness and leverage the international diversity inherent in their global markets, but the challenges are significant. Language and social norms change across the globe and employees need targeted training to successfully communicate across cultures.

Cross-Cultural Training

Before Seddon relocated to China, she had a two-day intercultural awareness training that included topics such as “stepping out of your cultural bubble,” which focused on how behaviors are value driven, and how values are derived from our cultural background. She said the training also discussed potential barriers to intercultural communication and culture shock, both from a business and personal perspective. Other cultural training programs do the same thing, though they vary.

Berlitz Corp. is a global leadership training and language education company that aims to help individuals within an organization understand how cultural values drive behavior in other countries.

“We’re trying to help them to become better communicators, better observers,” said Diana Anderson, director of cultural training solutions at Berlitz. “Once they understand more about the values that drive behaviors, they are then able to modify their personal styles, their interaction styles, their communication styles, to work more successfully with those individuals in other countries.”

Culture is central to how we make sense of what we see and how we express ourselves.”

— Diana Anderson, director of cultural training solutions at Berlitz

Anderson defines cultural competence as the ability to navigate, communicate and interact effectively when encountering cultural differences. “The goal is to make sure people get the kind of information they need, have the practice in these different cultures and then once they have this ability to recognize differences, to then react in a way that mitigates those differences,” she said. “Then organizations can take that individual and put them in any culture around the world.”

Berlitz offers group-oriented programs that focus on global cultural competence and cultural diversity and inclusion. For example, there is an intercultural business skills program that focuses on developing cross-cultural business communication skills that are practiced by building relationships, teamwork and exercising leadership across cultures. The diversity and inclusion programs focus on how bias shows up in or outside of the workplace and the dynamics of unconscious bias, Anderson said.

Anderson said understanding one’s own national culture and how one sees themselves is vital to being culturally competent. “Culture is central to how we make sense of what we see and how we express ourselves,” she said. “When we embark on a cultural journey toward cultural competence, it’s incredibly important that people understand how they’re showing up in the world — how the national culture, how the corporate culture they’ve been working in, how all of that influences who they are and how their personal preferences really drive behavior.”

She said the first step in all the programs is self-awareness and helping people understand themselves. If someone knows they are a hierarchical person, for example, they will look at the way people answer emails in a certain way, or they may be more likely to look to a manager to make more decisions than someone who is more equality-oriented within their corporate culture, Anderson said. “It’s identifying where you show up and then where there might be some potential obstacles,” she said.

In China, Seddon said being aware of her natural style and how her behaviors may be interpreted by others has been critical in working with people of a different culture. “When developing a learning solution, my preference would be to seek input from a range of stakeholders in line with my preference toward collaboration,” she said. “In the U.K., I may pull together a mixed-grade focus group. However, in China I’ve learned that the lower-grade employees won’t offer any feedback if higher-grade managers are in the room, as this would open them up to the risk of losing face or being humiliated, if for example the manager disagreed with them.” Instead, Seddon said having one-on-one offline conversations provides a safe environment and is more productive.

Communication Culture Clashes

Anderson said a lot of challenges arise between direct communicators and indirect communicators. “Your direct communication or your way of speaking might seem like you’re yelling at an individual or that you are being overly emotional or rude when you are giving direction or having a conversation,” Anderson said. “We focus on helping you understand what you’re bringing to the table and how you’re being perceived by others and finding ways you can modify your behavior to communicate in a more successful way.”

Another challenge, especially for managers, is communicating in a face-saving culture. For example, Anderson said there are certain things an American managing someone in Japan wouldn’t want to do in front of others. “In a meeting you wouldn’t want to give feedback that’s negative, but you also might not want to give feedback that’s positive because Japan is a more collectivistic society,” Anderson said. “You would want to give that negative or constructive feedback to that individual in a private setting.”

Anderson said meetings in many Asian cultures are not for brainstorming as they often are in America; rather the meeting is to give a message, then the conversation or clarification of what happened in the meeting happens outside the formal meeting. “Getting information about the norms of other cultures, identifying how other people communicate and show up is going to help you modify your style in order to fit better into that environment and keep your integrity and dignity,” Anderson said.

Cultural clashes can also happen when one person is used to taking initiative and the other is used to asking a manager to make the decisions, Anderson said. “The person who wants to take initiative is assuming that person is going to jump right in and begin the work. And that person is assuming that the other person understands that they need to go to their manager to get a sign off which might take longer,” Anderson said. “All these little nuances create cross-cultural clashes that those who are not as culturally competent look at as a front against them. But in the cultural field, you need to ask questions, analyze specific situations and assume good intent.”

Coaching Multicultural Employees

“The communication challenges are what typically hold back progress for multicultural employees,” said Nadia Nassif, founder and CEO of Springboards Consulting, which offers career development and leadership coaching programs for native and nonnative English speakers.

Springboards Consulting has a team of cross-cultural and professional communication coaches who help multicultural workers develop and advance their careers. Nassif began Springboards in 2008 after working in Tokyo for almost two years. During her time in Tokyo, a few people mentored and supported her and helped her practice language skills, gain a cultural understanding and receive feedback. “For that reason, I had a better experience and ended up staying longer in Japan in my role,” she said. She kept her experiences in mind as she came back and saw multicultural employees experiencing similar challenges in the U.S.

Nassif said an important part of Springboards’ coaching is peer feedback, as multicultural employees often do not get constructive feedback at work. She said the feedback they receive from peer reviews or annual performance reviews is often limited and lacks clarity. That feedback often comes from upper management and is missing more information and context from a specialist who can dig deep around the cultural issues, she said. “Our peer review process uses a careful collection of peer input before, during and after the coaching, which helps to create a target for the learning and keeps it fresh,” Nassif said. “It gives multicultural individuals the advocacy they need for an equal playing field.”

Feedback is especially important for people who come from cultures where it isn’t appropriate to ask for feedback, said Debora Bloom, an independent organization development consultant and a Springboards coach. Bloom said having a mentor is helpful for multicultural employees to feel comfortable in the American business context. “When learning a new language, it’s hard to always know the best way to put things,” she said. “It’s helpful to have someone to ask, ‘Can I use this phrase? What’s the best way to say this or that?’ ” She added that reading biographies and novels is a great way to gain a cultural understanding.

In additional to verbal communication, physical communication can also be different across cultures. “In our American culture, we really evaluate the firm handshake,” she said. “When people are coming from Asian countries or some African countries, they are not used to that kind of handshake and have to learn it.”

Multicultural employee Nicolle Campa is the director of human resources for Fox News bureaus. In her view, the best way to learn how to successfully communicate across cultures is simply to communicate and interact with others.

“I don’t think there’s some actual training you can go to. I don’t think that this is the situation where you can just go to a training and an hour and a half later, you come out saying, ‘Alright, I got it,’ ” Campa said. “There may be some cultural awareness training that one can go through that can start sparking that level of attention and awareness, but I think interacting with people that are different from you is a better way to be able to get that — for lack of a better term — training.”

A Twofold Approach

Springboards’ Nassif emphasized that addressing communication challenges is a twofold approach: helping individual employees be successful and helping management communicate. “Not everything is an accent or a speech communication issue. Not everything is a remedial developmental issue,” Nassif said.

Nassif said even if there is a great coach, if there is not support, infrastructure and validation from a manager, it’s hard for a multicultural employee to know they are doing well. “If they’re not getting routine validation or feedback throughout the process, then it doesn’t stick,” Nassif said. “It doesn’t help them validate and understand where there’s career growth.”

Campa, who is originally from Puerto Rico, said the best managers she has encountered in her career are the ones who take the time to ask her questions. For example, “if I were interacting with somebody with your background, with your culture, what would be an ideal way that I could communicate better?” Campa said. “Those type of questions that are coming from a good place — that are curious but at the same time respectful — I think that makes a difference.”

Nassif said developing cultural awareness and understanding in management is vital to creating an inclusive environment that is supportive and moralizing for multicultural individuals, who are becoming a much larger part of the workforce. She said diversity and inclusion efforts and awareness around unintentional bias can help managers become more globally and inclusively minded for a stronger workforce.

Employee experiences are still largely shaped by managers. Nassif said if management lacks the cultural awareness or sensitivity, and developmental needs are viewed as remedial, it’s not going to be a motivating environment that’s conducive to growth. “Their whole developmental journey is often set on course by a manager who would advocate for their growth or invest in them,” Nassif said. “For multicultural individuals often unfamiliar with all the rules of the game, or the internal politics, it’s really critical to have the right infrastructure.”

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.