Say Whaaat?: Communicating Effectively Across Cultures

The essence of workplace productivity is communication. No matter how well we think we understand one another, communication is difficult. How often do we hear statements like, ‘He doesn’t get it!’ or ‘She didn’t hear what I was saying.’ Communication is at the heart of many of the issues we face when working across cultures.

When doing business across cultures, you may believe you are communicating clearly, but you are probably headed for big trouble. Most executives claim they try to adjust their English language in a foreign business situation. The facts show that there are still problems. After one recent global management meeting, we asked a senior Thai executive how much he got from the discussion. He said, ‘Not more than 50 percent’.”

How our message is interpreted and understood also depends greatly on the cultural context in which it is received and the method we use to convey our communication, be it email, face-to-face or teleconference (or the like).

Cultures vary greatly in their communication methods. Generally speaking, they are either high-context or low-context communicators. In a more high-context culture like Singapore – and most of Asia – the message is typically indirect and it is your job to figure out what they are trying to tell you.

A large part of the meaning of an Asian’s communication can be coded in their non-verbal cues, eye contact, silence, etc, and they leave it up to you to read-between-the-lines.

In many Western cultures, where direct communication is valued and rewarded, ‘you say what you mean and mean what you say’. But this often comes across as confrontational, blunt and even crude to many Asians.

Here are 10 tips to help you communicate more effectively across cultures in the workplace:

• Avoid using slang.
• Ask questions when you do not understand. Clarify.
• Use short sentences. (KISS – Keep It Short and Simple)
• Provide periodic summaries of the discussion so far.
• Use signposting to make it clear when you are changing topics.
• Do not rush – allow time for absorption and reflection.
• Pay attention to what is said rather than to accent or style.
• Take the time to check whether you are actually understood.
• Ask open-ended questions that allow a shared context to be developed.
• Give consideration to what is not said.

By following these tips you can avoid the key communication challenges that impede you and your multicultural team from reaching your goals.

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