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Building the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Communication

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When most people think of communication, they think of language. For instance, most linguists around the world believe that around 40-50% of people in the world are bilingual. Some research even estimates that by 2050, about 85% of the world will be multilingual due to globalization. While this may be true, it is also widely acknowledged that communication is comprised of non-verbal indicators and tone of voice too.

Though learning another language is the obvious way to communicate with international coworkers, it can be a challenge and is not all encompassing. Therefore, it is crucial to study elements outside of spoken language. Learning how to communicate through body language, tone, and a shared language are key skills when building a foundation for communicating across cultures.

Breaching Language Barriers

The main challenge of communicating with people in a language where each person has varying levels of familiarity is clear; are we understanding each other? The downside is, you may never know; the upside is, there are a few tactics you can employ to help alleviate misunderstandings.

First, remember to speak slowly and clearly, especially if you are meeting over the phone. Remember, it can be difficult for non-native speakers to distinguish between different accents, just as it is difficult to determine if a person is Brazilian or Portuguese based on their accent.

Second, sending a written transcript or meeting notes is always a polite gesture as well. Lastly, if you can, use “Global English,” which is recognized as the universal language for business operations today. Global English should always be free of slang, idiomatic phrases, abbreviations, and references that may not translate across languages and cultures.

Visual Communication

No matter the level of language fluency, it is a best practice to use visual cues to supplement verbal communication. Most of us do this without even thinking and relay a lot of information through body language and tone. While you can observe a lot through personal interaction over time, there is always a benefit to doing a little learning and research first.

Reading is a terrific way to start to build a foundation for understanding the basics. For example, knowing certain gestures or expressions can prevent embarrassing mistakes. And of course, you can take your learning a step further by receiving training to learn the subtleties of another culture and put your learning into practice. When you put these teachings into practice, some things become obvious; such as when presenting or sharing information, try to include numbers and charts that clearly display data or learn a culture's preference for eye contact and hand gestures. Do they rely on eye contact to indicate sincerity? Or do they avoid it out of deference to authority? By knowing what the basics are before you begin, learning the nuances will be easier.

Implied Communication

Every culture has its own norms when communicating that combine words, body language, and, our final element, tone. One of these norms revolves around the context of a conversation. To understand the meaning of the conversation, you may need to rely on body language and tone, as well as words to find the actual meaning of what is said.

For example, your business partners may say “yes” or “maybe” but this response should be understood as a polite “no.” Without extensive experience or training it is nearly impossible to learn how all three elements come together to create each culture’s preference. Based on this example, perhaps you can imagine the misunderstandings when communicating about business goals, negotiations, views, and timing.

Learning about these potential obstacles in cross-cultural communication is the first step in becoming a more efficient communicator. Whether you are moving to another country or you work with citizens of another country regularly, receiving intercultural training and development will help you navigate the nuances of a new culture and build a strong foundation for communication.


To learn more than just the basics:

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