Effective Intercultural Communication

Culture is often defined as the ‘lens’ through which we view the world; it is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves.

Culture can emerge from many different sources, not just from the home country of the person. Therefore, intercultural communication does not only discuss the differences between the communication styles of people from different countries. Achieving effective intercultural communication means successfully transmitting the message from the sender to the recipient, regardless of their ethnic background, race, age, gender, geographic region, religion, language, social status, etc.

At the same time, we should never forget about the individual differences: just because two people are from the same country, it does not mean that they will behave in the same way.

Working in an international business environment requires all of us to constantly work on improving our communication skills. Some tips on that journey are listed below:

1. Aim to form the ‘third culture’

When a person from culture A meets a person from culture B they both notice differences and uncertainty. Ideally, both should start building culture C based on their discovered similarities. This way, the cultural characteristics of two individuals create a third culture that is uniquely formed by the individuals’ relationship.

2. Avoid self-idealization

Try not to fall into the trap of constructing yourself as rational and the other as irrational and determined by their culture. What is normal for me, does not have to be normal for you.

3. Keep the message concise by speaking in plain, but still formal English

We cannot know what the level of English of the other person is, so it is best to stick to simple phrases. For example, use “get” instead of “acquire”; “send” instead of “transfer”; “do” instead of “implement”. Avoid using ‘foreigner talk’ or broken English.

4. When giving instructions, articulate in simple and clear steps

In written communication, make sure you use bullet points, well-structured paragraphs, and different letter fonts when required.

5. Be clear about the expectations

Make sure the person understands what is the end result you are looking for by stating it clearly.

6. Avoid asking complex questions

Whenever possible, ask closed questions. A good phrase to use is: “If my understanding is correct…

7. Avoid using jargon or expressions that may cause confusion

Don’t use phrases such as: “bang for the buck” (to get the most for your money).

8. Try not to inflict jokes indiscriminately on people from a different culture

The rule is: if you are in doubt about whether the joke will offend the other person, don’t make the joke.

9. Less is (not) more

Some people consider it rude to start an email without a greeting, while others see it as respectful towards their time and busy schedule. If you do not know the preferences of the sender, best to be on the safe side and stick to the polite version of writing.

10. WH-Questions

Any message of instruction should answer the basic WH-questions (Who? What? Where? Why? When?) in order for the recipient to understand it clearly.

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