6 Cross-Cultural Communication Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

A lack of cultural awareness can have big implications for any business. Cross-cultural communication errors can cause companies to lose out on contracts, or affect productivity, ultimately impacting profitability.

The world is getting smaller. Developments in communications and logistics combined with the development of an international, interconnected economy have brought together people from a diverse range of backgrounds, each with their own cultural identity.

As the business world becomes increasingly globalized, cultural awareness is paramount. Here, we look at six common Cross-cultural communication errors, and how to avoid them.

1. Be Prepared

In 2005 in China, the fast-food giant McDonald’s outraged the public through an ill-fated TV ad campaign. Featuring a Chinese man kneeling before McDonald’s staff, begging them to accept an expired discount coupon, the theme seemed misguided in any language.

It was particularly insulting in China, where begging is considered a very humiliating act. The ad was subsequently pulled, though not before provoking uproar and damaging McDonald’s reputation considerably.

Diversity makes the world a fascinating place to live in. Cultures can vary significantly from one country or region to the next. In order to show respect for other cultures, it is vital to learn about their culture beforehand. This will help you to read people and situations and recognize the appropriate way to communicate.

Cross-cultural interactions do not always go to plan. However, by preparing and planning ahead and showing respect, empathy, and understanding, you stack the cards in your favor in terms of leaving your audience with a positive impression.

2. Recognize Different Communication Styles

People from different countries can communicate in very different ways. For example, people from Japan often communicate in a rather indirect manner, requiring their conversant to identify what is going on said. People from Germany are generally much more direct, saying exactly what they mean.

In some countries, even words like “yes” can be interpreted differently. Westerners usually say “yes” to convey their agreement what the speaker is saying. In numerous Asian countries, however, the word has a rather different connotation. There, “yes” may simply indicate that your audience is listening to you, not necessarily that they understand your viewpoint or agree with you.

3. Be Mindful of Word Choices and Intonation

When interacting with someone from another country, it is important to be aware of the way that you speak and respond to that person. Some countries, particularly Western nations, are relatively relaxed and accepting of informal speech. However, others adhere to a very rigid social hierarchy, requiring honorifics and formal address.

Slang creates significant scope for confusion even between people who speak the same language, varying considerably from region to region. Idioms are also best avoided.

When speaking with people from another country, rather than assuming that everyone can understand what you are trying to convey, you should pause periodically. Provide an opportunity for your audience to respond. If you are unsure what your companion has said or disagree with them, it is important to avoid frowning, since in many cultures this is considered rude, or a sign of open hostility.

4. Comparing Other Cultures to Your Own

When working overseas, many people struggle to get used to different cultural habits, e.g., the Japanese bow, or the French greeting of a kiss on each cheek. To assimilate successfully, expatriates need to learn about local customs, and adapt their behavior accordingly, particularly in a professional setting. Someone who is negative about other cultures and criticizes the way people behave will struggle to be successful in their adopted culture.

5. Avoid Assumptions

Making snap judgements is always risky, particularly so with people from another region. Even if you and your conversant share a common language, that does not necessarily mean that they share the same habits and values as you.

The world is becoming increasingly globalized, but that does not eliminate cultural differences. The fact that you both speak the same language does not guarantee that you have the same expectations or approach, particularly in business. When interacting with customers or colleagues from another place, you need to be mindful of possible cultural differences that could influence your communication.

6. Actively Listen

Active listening is important in all conversations, particularly when conversing with someone with a different nationality. Summarizing or restating what your conversant has said tells them that you are paying attention. It also helps you ensure that you have understood them correctly.

If in doubt, it is always better to ask. In doing so, you ensure that important information has not been missed or misunderstood, while building rapport with the other person at the same time.

Interrupting, or trying to monopolize the conversation, is impolite in any language. Conversations flow more freely when you take turns to speak. This is especially true when one or both of you is speaking your non-native language. Short exchanges are much easier to process than long monologues.

Originally published at https://carltonjames.org on March 24, 2022.

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Carlton James is a Director of GBTI and a Consultant Specialist in corporate communications for development

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Carlton James

Carlton James

Carlton James is a Director of GBTI and a Consultant Specialist in corporate communications for development

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