The headlines are jam-packed with international news. Sometimes it seems like we cannot understand the who/what/where/why of the news today. People have names that we cannot pronounce, from regions that we have no idea where they are located. They wear different clothing and are sometimes fighting for things that we take for granted. Global news now takes seconds or minutes to reach worldwide recognition, when it once took days, weeks or even years for people to know what was happening on other continents. The more we communicate, the more we increase the opportunity for communication break-down or miscommunication.
Have you ever felt like you were doing everything possible to communicate with someone and it left you feeling like you were hitting a brick wall? Well, join the millions that are affected by cross-cultural communication failure. One of my favorite movie lines is, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. If only, it was that easy to identify. Often we have a hard time admitting that we are failing at anything, much less failing to communicate.
How can we fail to communicate? We learn to speak before we learn to do almost anything else. We have had years of practice. We know what we are saying. If there is miscommunication, can it be our fault?
If you do admit that there is some failure, the tendency is to blame the other party for not understanding. How many times have you said, “I have done all that I know to be clear and they are just not getting it”? It seems like you are speaking a foreign language. It’s frustrating and tiring, but what can we do, if you are doing your very best? Good question!
First, take a step back from the situation. Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. This step may take practice. It may seem weird at first or time consuming, but it is worth the work. The more you practice taking the first step the more comfortable and natural it will be.
- Are they from another culture or another area where they might interpret the information differently than you do?
- Is it possible that the words that you are using might have different meaning for them, than how you intend?
- For instance, a restroom in the US is a restroom; whereas, in Slovakia, it is a place where young children play/rest at school.
Next, look at what you know about the person with whom you are trying to communicate. What do you know about them? Are they international or culturally different than you? Geographically differences, even in the US, can make a huge difference in language meaning. Is it possible that they have different expectations in the way they do business or communicate? You may not have all the answers but it is important that you try to look at the whole situation and work with the details that you have.
As you begin to analyze these answers to these questions, you will begin to see if there are patterns that could be creating cross-cultural communication failures. It may be easier to recognize if they are from another country, than to tell if they are from Texas and are highly influenced by the Hispanic culture. They may be South African and white and speak with a British accent, this can all give you confusing cultural cues, but it is something with which you can work. You can now begin to change your approach and your communication style in order to become more effective.
In Edward Hall’s book, The Silent Language, he shares a story about an American manager in Latin American trying to get a contract and failing for many reasons, mostly due to communication contextual and cultural differences. The American manager is in a hurry to get business done, while the Latin American is trying to get to know the manager on a personal level before discussing business. Because they could not find common ground, the American lost the deal. He failed to access the situation and make corrections before it was too late.
What can you do?
Here are five easy steps to help you communicate more effectively no matter where you are or with whom you are communicating.
- Know before you go! You should never go into a communication zone without knowing a few things. You should know the setting. You should know the person(s) with whom you are going to be communicating. (do your homework) You should know some cultural cues, as well as possible faux pas.
- Be open to interpretation! You must be willing to realize that what you say and how you say it may be interpreted differently than you intended for it to be. Ask questions. If you have concerns, ask clarifying questions. Make sure that your communication is effective and ongoing. If there has been some failure, asking now might prevent further issues.
- Save face! Be quick to forgive and forget. You must be willing to forgive others and take responsibility if there is a communication mishap. Don’t dwell on it and don’t place blame. This is a trap and will deter any potential for advancement in your communication relationship.
- Be humble/honest! If you don’t understand, ask questions. Don’t fake it. The other person may not be aware that there is an issue and you may assume too much by not knowing actual meaning. These are very dangerous situations. It is always better to proceed with caution than try to bail yourself out later.
- Don’t expect too much! If you expect that others always know what you mean and have a clear understanding of everything that you say, then you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Just because someone speaks the same language that you do, does not mean that you share common culture or common meaning for all words or phrases.
Don’t let your deadline become your loss. Take time and learn how to communicate effectively and win more at home and abroad.