The Secret to Effective Cross-Cultural Communication in the Workplace

Workplaces are changing. The modern workplace is increasingly multicultural. A proportion of the people you work with are likely to have migrated at some point in their lives. They might have moved from one state or city to another or traveled to a different country to find work.

In addition to traveling to find work, people are opting to work remotely, telecommuting from anywhere in the world. This changing workplace offers many benefits to businesses that can source skills worldwide, but also brings challenges in terms of forming teams.

Working with someone from another culture often involves adapting to new perspectives. For example, where an office worker from the United States might prize individuality, a worker from China will value teamwork.

This guide to cross-cultural communication will explore some of the challenges you may face and how to overcome them. Let’s get started.

Diversity in the workplace

It is certainly easier working with someone from a similar background. There is a shared understanding of culture, humor, and work expectations, amongst many things. While it may be easier working with people with shared cultural values and understanding, there are definite advantages for a business.

Companies that hold back on diversity can suffer a lack of growth. In an interview published on BambooHR with Adam Grant, he says: “… if you track them after they go public, the companies that are really into culture fit grow at slower rates when you track metrics like annual market capitalization. As they look for people who fit the culture, they start to weed out of diversity of culture.”

Does your company form a clique of its own? If you are all from a similar background with the same culture, you are unlikely to question attitudes towards anyone different. When analyzing diversity in the workplace, start by reviewing your personal and corporate attitudes. What perceptions do you carry about your own and other cultures?

It is too easy to stereotype, whether that is generalizing about women, men, Americans, or Germans. The truth is that we are all unique, made up of any number of characteristics that influence our behavior.

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Try listing all the characteristics that make you who you are, and you will realize that nationality and culture are not the only types of diversity.

People are different in many ways, and cross-cultural offices need to learn from each other to overcome the differences.

In the same way, as communication is the key to successful teams and businesses, communication is also key to a successful cross-cultural workforce. The following are five cornerstones of effective cross-cultural communication:

  1. Establish communication preferences
  2. Remember that communication is not only verbal
  3. Identify language barriers
  4. Form friendships across cultures
  5. Risk misunderstanding

In a multicultural workplace, it is important to monitor how teams are communicating and operating, not just the results they are achieving. One of the best ways to monitor your workforce is through one-on-one meetings. For example, you can use scheduling software for small businesses to check how things are going. This can help identify issues that could become an issue and provides you the opportunity to find a solution.

Establish communication preferences

Communication allows you to learn more about your colleagues and will help you to understand the similarities and differences in the way you work.

Open communication will also help you identify the skills and strengths that each team member brings to the table.

In three Situations Where Cross-Cultural Communication Breaks Down, Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux say: “…the strength of cross-cultural teams is their diversity of experience, perspective, and insight. However, to capture those riches, colleagues must commit to open communication; they must dare to share.”

One example of a cultural difference could be ‘participation norms.’ One person might see a lively loud session of brainstorming as argumentative, the other as perfectly acceptable. One person might be happy to put themselves forward, and another may be reluctant.

Find out how your colleagues or employees perceive interactions and work towards a ‘team norm’ that fits well with the company culture. Ask colleagues how they prefer to hold meetings and how they prefer to give and receive feedback. Then find the middle ground.

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Remember that communication is not only verbal

It can be useful to remember that differences can be non-verbal. Doctor Albert Mehrabian conducted several experiments and found that 55% of communication is non-verbal (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, and posture).

Hurn and Tomalin are authors of a book called “What is Cross-Cultural Communication?” They point out that “Communication can involve spoken and written language, body language and the language of etiquette and protocol.”

An example of where posture affects communication is when you interview someone who is slumped in the chair and looks down while talking or mumbles answers. This behavior is unlikely to result in a hire due to the negative associations with it.

Standing close to a person while speaking to them can be seen as friendly by one person and too familiar by another. Formally greeting people at the beginning of meetings is another example where etiquette can differ across cultures.

We all tend to judge other people, approving, or disapproving of their actions. The source of the conflict could be cultural. After all, in different cultures, business is run in different ways.

You might judge a colleague for working overtime. They could merely be acting in a way that is normal for their culture. Another employee might rebel against the corporate culture of the ‘always on’ nature of taking calls or answering emails out of hours.

Look out for ways that non-verbal behavior is hampering communication across the team.