Working as a consultant, I get to interact with a wide variety of people. This includes clients and partners in other countries across the globe. As such, many of the people I work with come from a different culture, or do not speak English as their first language. This cross cultural communication can present unique challenges. I always take extra care and do whatever I can to overcome these barriers. Here, I’ve collected some tips to make cross cultural communication more effective.
Be mindful of time differences
When I’m on a conference call with international participants, I always keep in mind what time of day it is for each participant as I open and close the conversation. Sure, at first it might feel weird saying “Good afternoon” to someone when the sun hasn’t come up yet, but you get used to it. And, whether they mention it or not, people appreciate the consideration. It’s a simple gesture that shows you have empathy, and the ability to view the world from another person’s perspective.
Be extra courteous
Another thing to keep in mind when working with people from across the globe is your level of courtesy. This is especially true for Americans since our culture tends to be very informal. What might be a normal tone for talking to another American might be disrespectful to someone from a different culture.
There is a motto I often borrow from a former coworker that states, “Courtesy and discretion in all forms of communication.” I try to observe this not only in cross cultural communication, but in any work-related communication I have.
When we write and speak, we frequently use idioms to get our point across. For example, if I’m putting lots of hours into a project but not making much progress, I might say that I’m “spinning my wheels” on it. Other American speakers will know what that means. Some folks from other cultures might, as well. But, still others might be confused about the meaning, especially if English is not their first language.
To remind myself how confusing idioms can be across cultures, I think of a phrase I learned in high school Spanish: “El mundo es un Pañuelo.” The literal translation of this phrase is, “The world is a handkerchief.” Do you have any idea what that means? It makes no sense unless you’ve heard it before and learned its meaning. Then, you would understand that it’s the Spanish equivalent of saying “What a small world!” when you run into someone unexpectedly.
Remember, not all holidays are global
When there’s a holiday, I love having a day off from work. Sometimes even the day before the holiday is like a break. Hardly anyone comes into the office. Nobody responds to e-mails. It can be very relaxing. But, when you’ve got clients and partners in other countries, it’s important to remember that not everyone celebrates the same holidays.
For example, when Thanksgiving is approaching in America, some of our clients would be surprised to see us disappear for two days, then talk about food for the next week. That’s why it’s important to be proactive and remind our global partners of any upcoming holidays. Cross cultural communication necessarily requires us to be more actively engaged.
The non-universality of holidays also goes both ways. Just as it helps to greet partners in Singapore with the opposite time of day (there is an 11 or 12 hour time difference), it is also a wonderful gesture to wish your friends in India a happy Diwali. Wishing folks well as they celebrate holidays is a polite and respectful gesture. It is always welcome in a business context. Sure, it may take extra effort to remember the holidays you don’t personally celebrate, but it’s worth it.
These are things I’ve taught myself through observation. I’m certain they are not the only useful tips for engaging in cross cultural communication. What other pieces of advice do you have for people working with global partners? Please share in the comments section!