Cross-cultural (or intercultural) communication is a unique field of study that adds depth and additional dimensions to the existing challenges of communication. It goes beyond the barriers that are inevitably presented by language differences to include deeper social and cultural issues. It explores the questions of how individuals communicate with one another – including how they respond to direct questions, how they react to individuals with authority, and their ability to say "No."
In this article, you will learn about the field of cross-cultural communication. You will discover what types of barriers to expect, and what you can do to overcome them.
ü What defines "culture?"
ü What are the more common cultural barriers?
ü What can I do to address cultural communication issues?
ü How can I work within a global community?
What is Culture?
Culture is anything and everything that makes a person unique. Race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, education, sexual orientation, and even disability contribute to what it is that makes us unique as human beings. However, for the purposes of this section, we will look at culture as it relates to ethnicity and nationality. Although this doesn't discount any of the other contributing factors, it does emphasize those differences that play the biggest role in providing obstacles to communication in a world where communication for business knows no boundaries.
Working in a Global Community
In today's business and Internet-based world, communication with individuals from all over the world has never been easier – or more important to a business's bottom line. While language barriers can technically be overcome by translators, these individuals often overlook the subtle nuances that make cultures and communication unique. In order to be effective in your relationships with other cultures, you have to move above and beyond mere language to embrace deeper, more personal world views.
Step One – Acknowledge Cultural Differences
The fact that cross-cultural communication is now an independent field of study goes a long way in helping individuals all over the world overcome barriers to communication. Historically, miscommunications across cultures were attributed to linguistic difficulties and very little more. However, we now know there is a much deeper level of communication to address.
By acknowledging that cultural barriers may present a challenge to your next communication endeavor (for example, if your new employee is from a native culture, or you are employing an overseas firm to handle your telecommunications), you will be better able to address issues that may arise – even if you don't know where or how these issues will come up.
Step Two – Share the Blame
If you and another person are attempting to communicate effectively, and you have ascertained that cultural barriers are presenting a problem, the first instinct is to place the blame on the non-dominant culture. We see this all the time in politics, business, and the media. Many Western nations adopt an "assign the blame" mentality wherein they feel that a problem cannot be handled until the fault is pinpointed on a single individual or situation.
However, when a miscommunication arises due to cultural norms, there is no single place for the blame to lie. Cultural norms dictate everything from how one treats the sexes, to how one views time. These are ingrained practices that most individuals have been practicing since birth. Although you may disagree with what the other person believes or does, it is no more "wrong" than your own actions.
Businesses may have an especially difficult time with this, since it is often felt that if one wants to do business with a certain culture, he or she needs to adapt (meaning the other party can make such demands and refuse to compromise). However, if your purpose is to create more effective communication – regardless of your personal beliefs or practices – you have to be willing to meet others at least halfway.
Step Three – Never Make Assumptions
As humans, we tend to project our own thoughts and feelings onto others, especially when there are problems with communication. This is never more evident than it is with different cultures, since we are often at a loss as to the underlying reasons behind the actions of culture we know little about, or do not understand.
However, making assumptions is almost guaranteed to lead to communication difficulties. No matter what sorts of challenges arise, avoid becoming hostile, aggressive, or otherwise overbearing. Try to understand where the other person is coming from; if you can't, don't be afraid to ask questions. It isn't a bad thing to not know about another culture – it is a bad thing to refuse to learn.
Step Four – Don't Rely Solely on Generalizations
There have been countless studies done on cultural differences and communication patterns. These include such things as the widely-known Cultural Dimensions studies by Geert Hofstede, which break down different cultures into their fundamental differences. These differences are ranked on a numerical scale, allowing individuals to gain an understanding of how different nationalities view things like time, the sexes, individualism, and authority.
While this tool (and others that offer similar comparisons) can prove invaluable as a starting point, they should never be relied on as the end-all and be-all of how cultures communicate. Within a single country, there are millions of individuals, each with his or her own independent world view. Saying that all Japanese people are more loyal to their employers is correct insofar as it relates to the way other countries view the workplace dynamic, but this certainly doesn't mean that everyone in Japan views their employment opportunities in the same way. To make this sort of generalization is unfair to everyone involved.
Step Five – Learn the Basics
Although we've stressed the importance of NOT relying on generalizations, it's still a good idea to know where they exist. It is much like learning the rules of driving a car. Although you should always know the laws of the road, there is no substitute for avoiding accidents than years of experience, patience, and common sense. Only with these same three attributes will you become proficient at efficient cross-cultural communication; however, until you get them, knowing the basic foundation is a great place to start.
Different cultures communicate differently. Some rely almost solely on verbal communication, while others place more value on using respectful silence and nonverbal communication as a way to make one's feelings known.
(Consider the English word "sure." By all definitions, it means "yes," as in, "Yes, I will do that." However, the word's meaning can really vary from a reluctant, "I guess so," to a more enthusiastic "Absolutely." It is a word that is open to interpretation, depending on how it is said, and the nonverbal cues that accompany it. If there can be this much interpretation in a single word in a single language, just imagine the different ways to interpret communication when you throw multiple languages and cultural differences into the mix!)
How to approach, and deal with, conflict is an incredibly varied concept across cultures. In traditionally aggressive cultures, (such as in the United States), conflict often has positive connotations – especially in the business community. However, in other cultures, conflict must be avoided at all costs. To force conflict on another person might be considered deeply disrespectful and result in a communication breakdown.
This issue is one that is evident not only across cultures, but across generations, as well. For some individuals, older generations and those in positions of authority are to be revered and followed without question. For others, "blindly" following a leader is a sign of weakness or submission. These differences come into play primarily on the business field, where insubordination can result in a fractured relationship, or even the loss of a job.
This issue often goes hand-in-hand with authority. Cultures that stress the importance of the individual – that is, relying on oneself to get things done, and placing teamwork lower on the scale – are often the same ones that place less importance on the power of authority members. However, when working with a group dynamic, different views of what constitutes teamwork can result in a huge loss of productivity.
Disagreements and Conflicts
No matter how great you are at communication, there will come a time and place when a disagreement arises. As an effective communicator, it is your job to avoid potential disagreements, before a situation escalates to a problem, as well as to employ conflict resolution techniques once a disagreement has occurred. This skill set – that of conflict resolution – is one of the best attributes you can bring to your job, your social life, and your family.
In this article, you will learn how to handle disagreements before and after they occur.
ü How does conflict affect communication?
ü How can I use conflict to increase business and personal relationships?
ü What do I do when a disagreement occurs?
ü What are the fundamentals of conflict resolution?
Is Conflict Always Bad?
You may believe that, in an ideal world, you would never have to engage in conflict resolution, because conflict would never occur in the first place. However, there are times and places when conflict and disagreements can actually improve a situation. In some cultures – especially the U.S. business community – conflict can be considered a sign of strength and power.
Although conflict that escalates to real problems and hurt feelings is not good for the workplace, moderate conflict can introduce variety. Two team members with widely divergent views may butt heads from time to time, but the chances are that the electricity that occasionally sparks between them has the potential to produce innovative ideas. Many modern businesses even capitalize on this idea as a way to compete and gain an edge in the market.
However, for the sake of effective communication, disagreements and conflicts do not create an ideal scenario. While it may be better to step back from minor disagreements and controlled conflict, which may have the potential to turn into great ideas, you should always be prepared to step in to stop things from escalating or becoming a serious problem.
This is true only if you take your conflict avoidance to an extreme level. For example, allowing your co-worker to dictate when you get your lunch break to avoid a daily disagreement might be acceptable, as long as you are not physically affected by the issue. However, allowing your co-worker to tell you that you may not leave early to attend to your sick child because it will infringe on her scheduled lunch break is not acceptable, since it represents a bullying situation, rather than a conflict of interests.
The concept of bullying versus a conflict of interests is central to understanding how to cope with disagreements. People are all different: They have different backgrounds, cultures, world views, and beliefs. No matter how hard you try to avoid conflict altogether, it will never be 100 percent possible. However, having divergent opinions and views is one thing – forcing those opinions and views is another. When someone in a team dynamic (or even in one-on-one relationships) oversteps the boundary between having differences and forcing differences, the conflict has become unhealthy and needs to be addressed.
Fostering Healthy Conflict
For many businesses and interpersonal relationships to function smoothly, conflict avoidance may need to give way to healthy conflict. In healthy conflict, differences are shared and encouraged, as long as respect plays an equally starring role. It can take time to develop an atmosphere of healthy conflict, but the reward of a strengthened relationship or team dynamic can prove invaluable.
Set Clear Boundaries
Determine ahead of time what constitutes "bullying" or going too far. In a formal business setting, you may even want to go so far as to commit these guidelines to paper. By setting boundaries and making sure everyone understands them, you can create an environment wherein everyone feels comfortable being themselves, since they know the situation won't escalate to an unpleasant scene.
Respect Above All Else
In a healthy conflict environment, differences and disagreements are respected. Personal attacks, name calling, belittling remarks, and otherwise juvenile behavior should be kept far removed from the situation.
Accepting conflict is a new concept for many people. You may need to reinforce the idea that conflict is not only accepted, but welcomed. Give people time to get used to the idea and comfortable with speaking up and sharing divergent opinions.
Give a simple thanks to those who are willing to share their views and opinions in the new setting. This can work in businesses through formal benefits, or in personal relationships, simply by saying, "I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me."
Despite your best intentions, healthy conflict and conflict avoidance will sometimes lead to actual out-and-out disputes. When this occurs, you need to begin the process of conflict resolution.
Step One – Detachment
Most conflicts that are in need of resolution are those that bring emotions into play. Therefore, the first step you should take is to diffuse the emotions involved. Though you cannot be responsible for the emotions of everyone in the room, you can control your own, and the way you react to others. Try to detach your emotions from the situation and avoid forcing other people's emotions to rise any more than they already are.
(Note: In this instance, emotions are not the same as feelings. When you are in a personal conflict, feelings are a valid argument. For example, feeling uncomfortable when a co-worker calls you by a certain nickname is acceptable; displaying anger over the name is not. Although it can be incredibly difficult, you have to learn how to involve your feelings without getting emotional about them.)
Step Two – Focus on the Present
Nothing is more common during a disagreement than the airing of grievances. Spouses and individuals in relationships are notorious for this – they bring up past issues that have little or no bearing on what the disagreement is actually about. Avoid this common pitfall by focusing on the issue right in front of you. No matter how hurt you may have been in the past, the only conflict you can actually do anything about is the present one.
Step Three – Keep Your Voice Level
Shouting over a conversation to make yourself heard is not going to resolve any conflicts: it's only going to make the other person shout in return. If you maintain a calm speaking voice, you are more likely to get calm reactions and be able to actually discuss the issue at hand.
Step Four – Focus on Facts
During a disagreement, it's easy to fall back on generalizations as a way to point fingers. "You always," and "You never," are two of the most common villains. These kinds of accusations are almost always inaccurate, and saying them only serves to hurt feelings (rather than foster results). Stick to what you know is true.
Step Five – Own Your Faults
Conflicts are a two-way street: You are all responsible for at least one portion of the disagreement. Taking responsibility for your actions will help you to reach a conclusion faster, even if it means you have to swallow a little pride to do it.
Step Six – Know When to Walk Away
Conflicts occasionally escalate to the point where a resolution simply isn't possible at the present time. Taking a "cooling off" period – whether that means 15 minutes or several days – can help all parties in the disagreement have time to reflect and remove their emotions from the issue.
Step Seven – Know When to Come Back