3 cross-cultural communication mistakes you want to avoid
Interacting with customers, partners or colleagues with a different cultural background might be a challenging and confusing process. Using a common language (such as English) is sometimes not enough to get your message across. From wrong assumptions through insufficient cultural knowledge to false conclusions about your speaker’s personality – there are many things that can go wrong in intercultural communication.
Avoiding these 3 common mistakes will help you ensure clear and effective conversations with your partners from other countries.
1. Not adjusting your style and register to the situation
Cross-cultural communication happens every time you interact with anyone who has a cultural background different than yours. It could be a person from a different country, different region of your country or someone who was brought up surrounded by a mix of various cultures (e.g. bilingual or multicultural families). You can’t assume that your style and behaviour will be understood the way you want to. That’s why it’s wise to adjust your communication style, be it in English or any other language, to your partner and make sure your intentions are clear. A common mistake here is to use professional and formal language – the one you would normally choose to communicate with your customers or business partners – in conversations with your non-native friends or colleagues. Too much formality may come across as pompous or dull and will definitely be an obstacle in bonding with your colleagues or potential friends. The same applies to informal style used in business environment – too many slang words and inappropriate jokes might ruin your deal and create an unprofessional image. So, choose your words and style wisely and try to adjust your communication to your partner and situation.
2. Judging and jumping to conclusions about your partner
Statements such as: “His accent is weird. He can’t even learn the language properly to do business” or “She speaks so slow, I guess she thinks and acts slow as well” are examples of quick judgments based on the first impression. When both parties communicate in their non-native language the room for misunderstanding is always present. What you may consider a flaw or weird personal characteristic might be in fact a visible manifestation of your partner’s culture. Speaking slowly doesn’t have to indicate that your colleague is a boring and passive person. Maybe she comes from a country with high context culture and high power distance. In this case your partner who carefully chooses her words might be showing her respect towards you and trying to see if you follow her logic.
3. Assuming that a common language means common values and habits
Just because we live in an increasingly globalised world doesn’t mean that there are no cultural differences. Similarly, speaking a common language doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a similar approach or expectations as your partner from abroad. Whether you work or do business in a multicultural environment, one thing is sure: you have to be ready for cultural differences that are manifested in the way your partners think, act, take decisions and expresses their ideas. Even if you live in the same country, region or city, you can’t assume that your partner will have the same expectations or values that are typical to your culture. When interacting with colleagues or customers with a different origin or cultural background you’ll need to think of any possible cultural differences that can influence your communication. The best solution is to give your partners the benefit of doubt and avoid any assumptions related to their intentions or attitudes.
It is never too late to learn how to interact with your partners and colleagues in a cross-cultural environment. Good preparation, curiosity about other cultures and open-mindedness will definitely help to avoid confusions, misunderstandings and the most common mistakes described above.
If you want to learn more about common cross-cultural mistakes, check out our Intercultural Business Communication course at Udemy.
Dorota Pawlak is a localization consultant for digital and Web 3.0 brands. She enjoys helping businesses enter new markets and is passionate about cultures, languages, and technology.
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