When it comes to cross-cultural communications the question of: “Who should adapt?” almost always comes up. I don’t think there is one magical formula for this, but there is a certain rationale I use for myself: “The one who wants to have a productive conversation and knows how to”.
If I know that I’m in my familiar context and for the other person it’s a new environment (for example if they just relocated to London, while I’ve been here for a few years already), then I tend to make more effort to ensure they feel welcome.
In my work, I meet people from various places in the world, with various passport and incredibly varied experiences. Part of my responsibilities is support in relocating our employees from around the world into the London office. Sometimes people just want to vent about how difficult some visa processes may be, or challenges around the logistics of the move. Sometimes they await my guidance and instructions on how to proceed, what steps to take. Other times they want to know all the details about the office, London, relocation packages and next steps. And finally, some people just get on with it and don’t need that much support. I may be approaching all of those colleagues differently, flexing communication style to fit their needs, but it’s always with the same intention – to provide them with the support they need at the time. Be it listening to them, providing guidance, or not getting involved much at all.
This doesn’t mean that I am a different person with all of those people. Doesn’t mean that you have to be. It only means that I have been working to develop multiple communication strategies in order to be able to have an effective conversation in different contexts. That said, if I were to go to a place I’ve never been before, like for example Japan which I’d loooove to visit, I would need some time to adjust for sure. Japanese communication style (in English) is not entirely foreign to me, having worked with many Japanese colleagues here in the UK. Nevertheless, that is where I would love for someone more familiar with the culture to guide me through the intricacies of how things work, so that I can have the time to observe and learn.
Today’s article is all about helping you start building those varied strategies to ensure you have the awareness of multiple communication styles which you may encounter when working across cultures as well as ways to approach those differences.
What words do you use?
Recently we discussed some aspects of communication, which may be particularly worth reflecting on when working across cultures. One of them was the words you use. A very popular scenario is one where native or fluent speakers use particular lingo and slang that the less advanced English-speaker might not necessarily understand.
Whether we want it or not, we live in the world, where a lot of international business is conducted in English. (I do, by the way, wonder how true this sentence would be in 15 or 20 years! :)) This means that we need to learn to address challenges deriving from varying fluency levels in this language between multiple business partners and co-workers.
What to do if you catch yourself using a lot of slang or can see that not everything you say is understood by your colleagues?
What kind of slang do we mean here?
It can be any industry lingo that you are very familiar with, but your intern may not yet be. Or maybe you’re talking with a colleague from another industry about your work and they seem to just nod their heads without much understanding? Or maybe you have spent some time in the US where saying “Let’s take a rain check on that” or “It’s a no brainer” or “Round Robin” is just natural for you?
Here are some things you can do if you catch yourself using those phrases too often:
- You can ask others to point out to you when you use a certain slang phrase you use a bit too often. You can say to them that you’ve noticed that you use that certain phrase frequently (and potentially other similar ones too), and you would like to be more aware of how you use those, so you need help with that. I’m sure you will find an accountability partner to point those out to you.
- Make note of it and start noticing how often you use those and if one is more frequent than the other. If yes, try to find alternative phrase that can express the same thing. If you see the other person didn’t quite get the slang, you can follow it up directly with the alternative phrase. That way you remain true to your natural style but you’re also helpful for the other person, as they then a) understand you and can fully participate in the conversation, as well as b) get to know new vocabulary, which means that you will no longer need to explain these phrases to them!
What to do if you are the one who doesn’t understand a certain phrase or slang that is being used?
It may well be that the colleague you work with is not as aware and mindful of the language they are using . And you might be the one who is in a situation where you don’t understand what is being said.
What are the various strategies you can use then?
- Make note of the phrases you don’t understand and research them at home to remember. That’s especially useful if the conversation moved on and you didn’t get to ask about the meaning, or when you attended a presentation and didn’t want to interrupt the flow.
- Ask the person to explain. If you don’t understand a certain link to the local celebrity, show or phrase that has been used in a conversation, really the easiest thing is to ask, where it’s possible. Or let it go if it doesn’t seem that important. People are happy to explain those things to foreigners, more often than not! Make sure to consider whether the concept of losing face is important in a given culture or not, especially if it’s a client setting or where you don’t yet know the people well. If it is, you may not want to challenge the understanding of this phrase in a group but rather speak to the other person separately to ask them for the meaning.
Who can you ask for advice and input?
Another important factor to consider when working across cultures is how the decisions are made. The same managerial behaviours may potentially be interpreted in completely opposite ways. What is considered a good manager in one place (where the manager is inclusive of their team’s opinions, asks them for inputs , includes them in problem solving and strategy planning updates) may be perceived as indecisive and weak in others.
Here are some strategies to try when you find yourself in an unfamiliar context with people who may have preference opposite to yours.
What to try if you like asking team members for their inputs and consider it best practice, a strong leadership – but you found that this strategy doesn’t work with the current team?
This behaviour may work well in certain contexts where people like to be directly included in the decision making process and feel more confident to challenge ideas in public, especially with more senior people in the room. You might find yourself in an environment where a good manager is the one making decisions independently (or with support from same-level colleagues or above), distributing tasks, and the one who knows more than their team members. If that seems to be the expectation from you but it’s not your natural leadership style, you may try to:
- Speak to your team members individually to get to know their working preferences. Remember to be comfortable with longer silences. Outline your areas of expertise, but also where you may need some help from the team, show them how you worked with your teams before and how you would ideally like to blend that leadership style to this context too.
- Ask for people’s inputs before the meeting, where they can express their thoughts more indirectly, such as through an anonymous survey or a comment box. Don’t indicate whose ideas they are (hierarchy might potentially influence the opinions). In more hierarchical societies, if you ask people for their opinions on the spot in a meeting, you are unlikely to hear any constructive criticism if harmony is a strong concept for them. Be prepared that you will be the one making final decision.
What to try if you think that a manager should be able to make decisions independently and be directive – but you found that this strategy doesn’t work with the current team?
Opposite to the above, there might be times that a manager with a more directive leadership styles enters a more egalitarian culture and struggles to connect with their team members. If that is you, consider those strategies:
- Speak to your team members individually to get to know their working preferences and expectations. Brace yourself for a more direct feedback than the one you may have been used to. If the expectations you heard about in those conversations seem like they may be challenging for you to implement, be open about your vulnerability and blind spots. Ask one of the team members to support you through the transition and be your cultural guide.
- Attend as many meetings and problem solving sessions as possible as a participant, when first entering the new culture. This will help you observe the interactions and methods of gathering input that are common in this new context. Some of them may be more direct than what you were used to back home. They may also involve people of various levels in the company, which may be helpful for you to observe in terms of which conversations they are involved in and how the opinions are collected.
The above are only two dimensions of cross-cultural communication that are present in our everyday international lives. There are so many things you may think about adjusting! The best way is to try one strategy at a time and see how it works, how you feel about it, how it resonates with you. You probably won’t be equally comfortable with all the communication styles or contexts, especially if you have a particularly strong natural preference towards one style than the other. But enriching your leadership toolkit with various approaches can open you up to building more trusting and effective relationships with more colleagues.