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Six Quick Tips to Improve your Cross-Cultural Communications

Have you ever been in a situation where you realized that your email or telephone message to a colleague from a different culture was not correctly understood? Working in an interdependent world, excellent cross-cultural communication skills are essential. Business performance, competitive advantage and talent retention depend on establishing, and nurturing strong global relationships and communicating successfully with multicultural colleagues, clients and customers. All communication is complex and it is almost impossible to send or receive any message that does not have an underlying context that can only be understood within a cultural framework.  Having a basic understanding of these six tips will help the communications with your multicultural counterparts.

1. Know yourself, and your own cultural context
You need to know your own culture, not just live it. How is disagreement or bad news expressed? How do you give and receive praise? How devastating is embarrassment? Answers to these questions differ greatly across the globe. Even small differences in communication style can lead to great misunderstandings. 

2. Know your audience and match the message to their communication needs and style. 
Have you noticed some cultures are more direct than other’s. They rely on words being literally interpreted. People say what they mean. “Yes” always means yes. Some cultures are more indirect. They rely less on the actual words to convey their point and more on non-verbal communication and context. “Yes” may not mean yes. It may be said because your colleague knows that is what you want to hear.  

3. Be mindful of the whole message you are sending
Think about non-verbal messages. In a country where people generally stand closer to each other than we do, what message are you sending them by standing where you stand? In many Asian countries a smile can often be a sign of embarrassment. An “OK” gesture used in the US means something obscene in Brazil. You have to be careful. 

4. Respect your audience and suspended judgment
Look at situations across cultures as “different” not “right” or “wrong”. If someone does something that we do not understand our normal tendency is to observe, interpret and judge. Communicating across cultures work on observing, asking questions for understanding and then exploring possibilities. 

5. Check for understanding
“American” is often your audience’s second language. Even if they are speaking “American” they may not comprehend everything that is being said. Periodically stop and check for understanding. You might consider having a team member paraphrase key points to make sure everyone understands before moving on to the next topic. 

6. No surprises
Putting people on the spot or addressing a topic that someone is not prepared to answer will erode trust and credibility. You need to know exactly what you want to achieve in a conversation. Think and organize your thoughts before you proceed. Send out agendas ahead of time and do not deviate from the key points so that everyone is clear and misunderstandings are minimized. 

Great skills for communication across cultures is something we need now and will need increasingly need in the future. It is fun, but it also involves more effort on everyone’s part. It is helpful if you are “culturally curious”. Take a sincere interest in your international colleagues and their countries. Taking time to learn from them about their country and culture will help in multiple ways.

Carol Cunningham is the President of Cunningham Consulting, a company specializing in minimizing cultural miscommunication to maximize performance.

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