How to communicate across cultures and borders

4 May, 2011 - 09:17
How do you mind the cultural gap that exists between global colleagues, clients and suppliers? Follow these top tips and you're sure to have everyone speaking the same language.

By Ellen Hake

It may not be true that the world is getting smaller, but it often seems that way. Are you already facing some of the challenges of communicating across cultures?:

  • Staff, suppliers and clients in different countries?
  • Colleagues across the desk with different cultural backgrounds?
  • International travel and project teams?
  • Cross-border mergers or joint ventures? 

When you ask people about the challenges of international communication, they tend to think first about language, followed by time and business styles. Cultural differences can be less obvious at first—but ultimately harder to manage.

Talking about language

It’s fortunate that language – while the most obvious challenge – is generally the most straightforward.

1. Companies need to decide their official language or languages (luckily for Anglo Saxons, English is usually included). One major German corporation chose German and English as official languages. Any manager must speak one of those languages, and all communications are issued in both.

2. Set some common language guidelines. For example, if English is your official language, you may need to clarify whether it’s British English or American English. Does 6/12/2010 mean June 12, 2010 or 6 December 2010? Avoid the problem by asking all staff to write out the month.

3. Use professional translators – then test out the translations with your own local employees. That’s the only way to make sure the word choice is correct for the specific area and local sensitivities.

4. Structure your events to help non-native speakers. Use visual aids. Have slides and handouts in additional languages. Some managers present in their own language, but show slides in a second language.

5. Write and speak what is called ‘international’, ‘offshore’ or ‘global’ English – all ways to describe a version of English that is easier for foreigners to understand.

  • Use familiar words (say ‘problem’, not ‘conundrum’; ‘start’, not ‘commence’).
  • Be concrete (say ‘two-year contract’, not ‘long-term agreement’).
  • Avoid colloquialisms (say ‘earn a living’, not ‘bring home the bacon').
  • Express ideas simply (say ‘I am committed to doing this’ instead of ‘this is something in which I have a commitment to act’).
  • Speak more slowly and enunciate more carefully. This is good advice even if your audience consists of native speakers with different regional accents.   

From an international point of view

When you communicate with people from different countries you may face unexpected practical and style issues.

It’s a good idea to test out plans and drafts with your colleagues in other countries—an extra step that will pay off handsomely.

Examples go from the obvious and practical to the more subtle:

  • Plan around time differences.
  • Take national and religious holidays into account before scheduling meetings.
  •  Consider the impact of colour in different cultures. While red is a positive colour in most far Asian countries, Americans avoid using it in corporate communication because it is associated with losing money (“We’re in the red”). Consult with different nationalities on design.
  • Think about the message behind the medium. Several European countries were responsible for communicating the same employee scheme. The Italian subsidiary used expensive brochures (otherwise, staff would not have seen the scheme as important to the company). The Belgian subsidiary used a photocopied flyer (otherwise, staff would have seen the scheme as wasting money and putting jobs at risk).
  • Build an international culture to avoid ‘us and them’ resentments. Use examples, case studies, best practices and models from a variety of countries. Set up international teams and hold meetings in a different country each quarter.

Speaking of culture

While you can quickly learn to deal with differences in language, time and perception, the real challenge is culture. It takes time (and sometimes painful experience) to really understand that your values, assumptions and logic are not shared by people everywhere.

For example:

  • An informal communication style that could work well with British and Swedish staff might totally misfire with Japanese and French teams.
  • Individual public recognition might motivate an American and humiliate a Chinese employee.
  • British colleagues might be convinced by a review of facts and figures plus some examples from the MD’s personal experience. Germans, on the other hand, might be suspicious of the lack of detail and concrete research.

Of course you can’t apply generalisations about culture to individuals...after all, there are reserved Americans, Germans who are habitually late and French people who don’t drink wine!

But research over the past 50 years has given us useful insights into national tendencies. Cross-cultural gurus (such as Edward Hall, Geert Hofstede, Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars) have described how cultures vary in what people assume and in what they value.

Three of these cultural factors are of special interest to communicators:

1. Directness: Anglo Saxons and Northern Europeans tend to prefer direct, straightforward communication. (“No, it can’t be done.”) Asians, South Americans, Southern Europeans, Africans and Middle Easterners tend to prefer a more indirect tone to show respect and save face. (“Yes, we will have to look into that”—this probably means no.)

2. Context: In low context cultures (UK, US and Finland are examples), words can carry the meaning on their own. In high context cultures (China, France), it’s what is behind the words that matter—relationships, shared experience, how things look and feel.

When communicating with international audiences, consider the level of context in your communication method. Print, email and intranet are low context (words only). Telephone, podcasts and video add some context through tone of voice and images. Face-to-face communication and building relationships provide the highest context.

3. Acceptance of change: Your reaction to change and risk is influenced by the culture you come from. So in cultures where “different is dangerous”, it will be harder to communicate change. This can be a stumbling block for your programme, organisation or merger.

Typically, you will find:

  • Stronger resistance to change: Germany, Japan, France, Mexico, Greece
  • Medium resistance to change: UK, US, Arab countries, Italy
  • Less resistance to change: China, India, Sweden

Naturally, where there is greater resistance to change, you will need to take more time to involve people in planning and implementing the change, as well as to communicate face-to-face.

If you are working internationally, relationships become more important than ever. When time and money is short, companies may be tempted to think that teleconferences, e-mail and telephones can replace international travel. Those tools can be effective, but only after people have built relationships in person.

Communicating across cultures

What is the bottom line...l’essentiel...der Hauptpunkt? As always, the success of your communication depends on your ability to understand your audience. Knowing how to communicate with international audiences takes this skill to a global level – to help you develop communication strategies and tools to achieve your objectives anywhere.

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About Ellen Hake

Ellen Hake has more than 25 years of corporate communications experience in the US and Europe. Currently based in London, Ellen helps organisations manage change, communicate internationally, build effective teams or integrate following mergers.

She holds a Master of Education degree and a BA in Journalism and is a co-author of the text book, “Exploring Internal Communication” available at www.exploringinternalcommunication.com or www.amazon.co.uk.

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