Today, a business’ reach can span across the globe with manufacturing units, support, warehouses, shared workplaces and distribution centers. Global interdependence requires a shift toward team collaboration across cultures to sustain today’s technology–enriched business environment. However, it takes a split second to alienate business partners by unintentionally encroaching on cultural norms or breaking intercultural protocols.
Culture is a shared pattern of values, attitudes, beliefs, practices, ideas and behaviors that define the way of life of a group (i.e., a country, state, organization or linguistic assemblage).
Competence is often mistaken for knowledge or skill. While knowledge is information processed by the brain — a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject — skill is the ability to carry out a task, with determined results, within a given span of time and energy. Competence refers to the ability to do the same task efficiently and repeatedly with superior performance.
Hence, cross-cultural competence can be defined as “the process of exchanging meaningful and unambiguous information across cultures in a way that preserves mutual respect and minimizes conflict.”
The Role of Communication in Cross-cultural Competence
Management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This statement is even more apt for communication across cultures. Cross-cultural communication can be defined as “a process of exchanging, negotiating, and mediating one’s cultural differences through language, non-verbal gestures, and space relationships.”
The art and science of communication — both verbal and nonverbal — has gained a lot of momentum recently. Organizations are investing millions in training on speaking properly and adopting the conversational nuances of business partners, even mimicking communication styles.
A closer look at the challenges of achieving cross-cultural competence reveals that communication is more than language. It also requires an understanding of cultural values. In addition, technology has made overcoming language barriers easy; just download an app, insert an earpiece and receive an instant translation.
Other consequential aspects of communication that impact cross-cultural competence are:
- Body language and gestures: The implications of gestures and other body language vary from culture to culture and include eye contact (some cultures prefer direct eye contact when conversing, while it may indicate a challenge in others), head nodding (considered “yes” in some cultures and “no” in others), raising an eyebrow, pointing a finger, and posture.
- Tone and pace: Tone conveys mood and attitude in verbal and non-verbal communication, and tonal variations can easily lead to misinterpretations, even within the same cultural group. “OK” is a widely used English term. Change your tone while saying it, and it changes the message conveyed altogether. Pace is another aspect of spoken language that can impact communication across cultures. Speaking too quickly when communicating with a non-native English speaker can lead to gaps in understanding and adversely impact communication.
- Word choice: Jargon, idioms and phrases that are commonly used in one’s cultural group often negatively affect cross-cultural communication. Even organizations have their own lingo. For medical personnel, “stat” means “immediately.” In other industries, it can be an abbreviated version of “statistics.”
Adapting Cross-cultural Competence
Understanding other cultures and being sensitive to differences is vital in today’s global business environment. It entails moving away from acting out of habit and toward making conscious decisions in a sustained manner.
Requisites of adapting cross-cultural competence include:
- Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview: It is imperative to understand and accept what we think and how we act before we can understand others.
- Positive attitudes toward cultural differences: Are we open to differences? For example, in another culture, when employees address their boss by their first name, are they being disrespectful, or is this form of address normal?
- Knowledge of other cultures: Attend to dominant values, business practices, hierarchy, gift-giving customs and humor with sharp focus.
Different cultures encode and decode messages differently. Filters like assumptions, implied values and meanings, emotions, prejudices, and stereotypes can mar communication and cross-cultural interactions by distorting the intended message.
Adapting cross-cultural competence is also impacted by differences in:
- Value systems.
- Attitudes toward the completion of tasks.
- Ethnocentrism (the inability to accept the worldview of other cultures).
- Cultural imposition (the belief that everyone should conform to the majority).
Cross-cultural competence is about striking the right balance among:
- Knowledge: Understanding other cultures, their people and their behaviors.
- Empathy: Understanding and responding in accordance to the needs of people from other cultural groups.
- Self-confidence: Striving to acquire the ability to express one’s point in an effective and transparent way, aiming to be understood and respected, and remaining flexible when possible.
Hindrances to Cross-cultural Competence
Different cultural contexts bring challenges to the workplace, even if employees speak the same language. Communication between English speakers in the U.S. and English speakers in the U.K. often go awry because of cultural differences that impact language. When non-native–English–speaking partners communicate with native English speakers, it can lead to miscommunication and perceived incompatibility.
Hinderances to cross-cultural competence often arise due to the following reasons:
- Language barriers: Linguistic variances have a major impact on cross-cultural competencies. Idioms, tone and sentence structure can all adversely affect communication fluencies.
- Psychological and attitudinal barriers: One’s own cultural background, values and experiences often give way to the emergence of stereotypes — fixed ideas about a cultural group where no effort is made to ascertain whether they are appropriate or applicable to individuals. Interactions with people from stereotyped cultures or backgrounds are often inaccurately informed by these mindsets.
- Physical barriers: Geographical distance forces individuals to rely heavily on technology to communicate, but technical disruptions can impact communication and adversely affect outcomes.
- Cultural barriers: The value systems ingrained in cultures often cause conflict. In the late 1970s, psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede published his cultural dimensions model to explain how value differentials impact interactions between cultures. Since then, it has become an internationally recognized standard for understanding cultural differences. It has renewed importance today, where businesses span across cultures.
Effective cross-cultural communication begins with the understanding that the sender and receiver of a message are from different cultures. They can overcome hindrances to adapting cross-cultural competence by:
- Developing awareness of individual cultures.
- Working toward mutual acceptance.
- Researching the communication etiquette of the other culture and learning a few key words and phrases, such as greetings.
- Avoiding the use of slang and idioms.
- Avoiding negative and double questions. Instead of asking, “Did you not any follow of that?”, asking, “Did you follow that?”
- Asking open questions. In many cultures, it is considered rude to say an outright “no.” Hence, someone may hear a “yes” even if the actual answer is “no.
- Speaking slowly and clearly and modulating well.
- Breaking sentences into short sections to give the audience time to translate.
- Using simple words.
- Practicing active listening and briefly summarizing what the other person has said to ensure understanding.
- Asking frequent questions but not interrupting.
- Considering special needs like time differences, holidays and observances, and national laws.
- Keeping an open mind.
- Avoiding generalizations based on stereotypes.
- Following the other person’s lead when it comes to humor. Humor is notoriously culture–specific.
- Being patient, supportive and courteous.
Today’s business relations are made complex by the nature of the human diversity involved. Acquiring and adapting cross-cultural competence can open up a world of opportunities and value. Developing this competence throughout the workforce is the most effective way to ensure success across organizations.