Seven Skills for Cross-Cultural Communication

Even as global population skyrockets past the 7 billion people mark, the world seems to get smaller and smaller. Technology has provided us unparalleled access to information from around the world so we know more about the world now than ever before. We can get the news from Qatar or Sweden or Dehli as easily, or even more easily, than our local news. We can sympathize with flood victims or share the thrill of a people’s revolution via Twitter. We are becoming a global community.

Major metropolitan cities are becoming increasingly international with people from all over the world living and working together. Young people are moving to the big cities to study or work, and many more dream of moving to another country to pursue their career.

Global English is the lingua franca

To do business, travel, work or study in another country often requires that we speak English. English is the dominant lingua franca (trade language) that connects people across cultural boundaries. We’ve always had trade languages. Without them it’s difficult to exchange goods and information across borders. Latin, Greek, Akkadian and Aramaic were each trade languages at one time in the past. Today, Global English is the lingua franca and there are about one billion people using it as a second (or third) language. The benefits of using global English are numerous, especially for business and trade, for education and for scientific research. But there are also personal and social benefits. When we exchange ideas across cultures we learn about ourselves as well as others. We break down barriers, build trust and find common ground.

We expand our horizons.

But when we communicate with people from different parts of the world in English we may be unaware of the cultural assumptions that underlie our spoken words. Different cultures have different ways of thinking and interpreting the world. If you are raised in a culture of rugged individualism (west) you’ll interpret the world and think differently from someone raised in an interdependent culture which values community over the individual (east). Conversation is more than just spoken words. It involves nonverbal communication like eye contact, gestures and tone of voice as well as our cultural assumptions about meaning. When each person brings their own cultural interpretations to spoken English, how do we communicate effectively with each other?  

Here are a few strategies that can help.

1. Listen actively

Don’t prepare your response while another is speaking but instead listen to them carefully and confirm your understanding by rephrasing their statement. Be an active listener and make sure you understand before you respond.

2. Slow down

Don’t speak at your normal speed. Take a breath and slow down a bit, articulate your words more carefully. Accents can make it more difficult to understand spoken language so it’s important to speak slowly and clearly.

3. Recognize assumptions
(and let go of them)

Don’t assume there is a right way to communicate, think or feel. What might be considered rude in one culture may acceptable in another. For example in Thailand you can pick your nose, but not your teeth, during a conversation. Realize that what you see and hear may not be what is meant. If you feel confused or even offended by something that was said or done, ask questions. Keep asking questions until you reach an understanding. If you have to assume anything, assume that people have good intentions and communication across cultures can be confusing. And even though we can’t all become cross-cultural communication experts we can learn to recognize our own culturally based assumptions and our judgements, then let go of them.

4. Words can have multiple meanings

Remember that one word can have multiple meanings. Choose words carefully and always ask clarifying questions to be sure that you understand the meaning of the word in context. In some cultures ‘yes’ can mean ‘maybe’ depending on the context. It’s important to choose your words carefully. Use words that are more concise and limit your use of slang. When you use slang, idioms or metaphors, be prepared to explain their meanings.

5. Watch your body language

Whereas a thumbs up is now globally recognized as a positive gesture, eye contact is not. In the west, extended eye contact is interpreted as a gesture of honesty and sincerity but in the east it’s considered rude to maintain eye contact after the first brief exchange. Smiling and laughing are also shared globally, although what makes us smile or laugh may differ across cultures. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, and it’s true, Thai people smile all the time. However, Thais have 13 types of smiles and they’re not all happy ones. It’s important to remember that different cultures use body language differently.

6. Avoid humor

Humor is culturally specific and very difficult to translate. A pratfall might be easier to understand across cultures than political satire. If you share a funny story with someone from a different culture you’ll likely see a bewildered expression in response. You’ll have to explain why it is funny, which still doesn’t make it funny to the listener. Really, it’s best to avoid humor in a cross-cultural conversation until you get to know each other better.

7. Be curious

We can learn much from people who are different from us. When we are curious we learn more. Develop your curiosity and you will learn many new things.

Join the global conversation and expand your horizons!

Author: Dani Leis, Founder of Glish

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