Intercultural Communication at Work

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In an ever-increasing globalised world, communicating in intercultural contexts has become imperative to do business, but are you prepared for the challenge?


An article published on the Harvard Business Review called How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures caught our attention. The author, Erin Meyer, explains through an anecdote with some Dutch business partners how we communicate in international contexts and how different our reactions can be to feedback.

She takes the example of Willem and Maarten, the two Dutch members of a meeting with 10 other managers in which Willem asked the group how could he improve his relationship with his Asian clients. Maarten, who knew Willem well, gave him his input. Maarten pointed out that he was not flexible enough and that his social skills needed some work. He added that this also made it very hard to communicate with his team. He continued giving Willem a list of things to improve in a calm but not sugarcoated way. The whole group was astonished at Maarten’s directness but they were even more surprised to see Willem’s reaction: he was obviously not happy to hear that, but he listened carefully and thanked Maarten for his assessment. The other managers, American, British and Asian, all looked uncomfortable as they felt Maarten was attacking Willem and embarrassing him.

In the evening, the whole group had dinner and drinks at a nice restaurant. Maarten and Willem were sitting together, having a drink and laughing. When Meyer approached them, she told them she was surprised they were still talking to each other after the tense feedback session earlier. Willem told her that even though he didn’t enjoy hearing all the things he was doing wrong, it was highly appreciated because Maarten gave him honest feedback and now he knew what he had to do to improve his relationship with the clients.

Managers around the world give feedback in very different ways and we need to be prepared to deal with this. A good way to assert how different cultures deal with feedback and international communication in general is observing. Listening carefully to the words used can help us in this. More direct cultures use upgraders, which are adjectives that make your message much stronger, if not harsher. An example can be “This is totally unacceptable” or “I am absolutely against this”. Other less direct cultures use the opposite, the downgraders. Downgraders try to soften the message. The British are great at using these. Beware. If you hear “We are not quite there yet”, you should maybe read between the lines. The meaning might be “This is nowhere close to be finished”.

To avoid miscommunication, try to think how your message might be interpreted by others and take note of these tips given by Kwintessential. Let cross-cultural communication flow!

Be Patient – Working with people from different backgrounds can be draining at times but if you try to be patient, you will find that not only you will get less frustrated but you will also help your interlocutor to feel at ease.

Set Down the Rules - When we find ourselves in an international environment we need to establish some rules to make sure that everyone is on the same page. It is necessary to approach tricky subjects like punctuality, disagreements, e-mails and communication. Avoiding these does not help. Even though at first it can be difficult, in the long term it will help.

Ask Questions - Something as simple as asking for clarification can save a tense meeting where communication is just not flowing. Making assumptions can be dangerous so if you are not sure about something that has been said, ask away! This will also help you in the future. You will recognise certain cultural patterns and you will be able to understand the meaning behind them.

Respect! - There is no magic secret to make intercultural communication easier, but if there is one thing that is international, that is R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  Respect is the foundation of all intercultural communication. By showing respect you earn respect and this helps creating a more open and fruitful relationship.

Put it in Writing - If you are a native English speaker you might think this is not important. Truth is, it is for those whose mother tongue is not English. Reading is often easier than speaking/understanding in another language.

The Issue of Time - “Time is money” is not a motto everyone in the world swears by. Try to understand that for many cultures, getting to know people, enjoying coffee or lunch together and have a nice chat is as important as getting down to business. In fact, in many parts of the world business won’t happen unless you take time to get to know your business partners, so make sure you are prepared.

Humour - Humour is not universal and we often learn this the hard way. Keep in mind that the joke that makes your countrymen crack up might be extremely impolite for someone who does not come from the same background. When in doubt, refrain.

Double Check - Even people used to work in multinational environments face dilemmas when they communicate with their international colleagues. Best tip? Always check and double check. If you are unsure about something, do your homework, ask around. This will make life easier.

Be Positive - Oops, you made a mistake. Stay positive! Find out what did you do wrong and amend it when possible. The good thing is, you will never make the same mistake again.

Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide Table

The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”








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