Do you work in a multicultural office? Do you have coworkers or clients from other countries or cultures? As we move further into the twenty-first century, this is becoming more and more common. The internet and other innovations have made the world feel smaller and more accessible, and the ability to effectively communicate across cultures is more important now than ever.
Intercultural communication has some unique challenges. People from different cultures may have different perspectives, opinions, values, or modes of thinking. These differences can easily lead to misunderstandings. For example, someone from a western culture may focus on an individual’s accomplishments at work, while someone from an eastern culture may be more likely to focus on the environment that led to the achievement.
Some cultures value context more than others. Someone from a culture that values context may prefer to provide a lot of contextual information (i.e., background, history, setting) about a topic. But someone from a culture that values context less might see this information as extraneous or unnecessary and become annoyed by so many details in the conversation.
Some cultures may place more value on politeness or courtesy, while others might value honesty and directness. This could easily lead to one side interpreting the other side as having been rude during a conversation.
In some cultures, assertive communication is seen as preferable, while in other cultures the opposite is true. Less assertive cultures might allow for long pauses in conversation, while more assertive cultures will see these pauses as invitations to speak. If speakers from both cultures come together, the person from the less assertive culture might come away from the exchange feeling talked-over and not heard. Likewise, the person from the communicatively-assertive culture might feel the exchange wasn’t productive. Remember that this can happen with different cultures within the same country, as well. People from the American midwest are generally less assertive in conversations than those from the American northeast, for example.
The Sapir-Worf hypothesis, a well-known linguistic theory, tackles the idea of one’s language shaping the way you see the world. For example, the speaker of a language in which the word “bridge” is marked feminine might be more apt to describe it with feminine adjectives (graceful, etc.), while the speaker of a language that characterizes the word “bridge” as masculine might describe it with more masculine descriptions (strong, etc.). While these differences can be subtle, they may cause miscommunication in intercultural communication if both parties aren’t sensitive to possible variations in view or approach.
It’s important to remember that communication is more than just word choice. We also have to take into account our tone, body language, gestures, and more. Remembering to account for cultural differences in communication styles may prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. Sensitivity to these differences can be very helpful.