By Emma Weissburg

If you have ever worked with someone of a different cultural background, you may have noticed more instances of miscommunication and confusion or even physiological responses that aren’t typical for you.

Here are a few examples of cross-cultural interactions:

  • Not understanding what exactly your counterpart is asking or saying
  • Not hearing “no”
  • Spending the first 30 minutes of an important meeting chatting about unrelated topics
  • While speaking, feeling uncomfortable by the distance or lack of distance between yourself and the other person

These feelings and misinterpretations are normal and expected.

Working across cultures requires a unique set of skills in one’s personal and professional development. Once we learn how to “flex” our work style preferences, we can interact more optimally in multicultural environments. In turn, we reap the benefits of diverse thinking, new ideas, and business gains.

Get started with the top 6 tips on communicating across cultures:

1. SBNRR—stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond.

When you encounter an intercultural miscommunication or dilemma, pause before your brain has a chance to ascribe a judgment or assumption. Your counterpart is likely acting within their own cultural norms, and although that may not be expected or normal to you, it is to them. Take a moment to breathe and simply notice what happened. What was the intention behind your counterpart’s action? If it isn’t obvious to you, then ask.

Retraining your brain takes work. Review the SBNRR fact sheet to help you follow these steps.


2. Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do something, just different ways.

When we become deeply entrenched in our own culture and way of doing things, we often mistake those thought patterns and behaviors for the “right” way of doing things. One of the greatest misconceptions that prevents harmonious interactions across cultures is the instinctual judgment that other people’s way of doing things is not as efficient or effective as our own. An interculturalist would argue that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do anything, simply different ways to reach the same objective. Cultural self-assessments are often used to illuminate the various approaches to common dilemmas.

3. Do not treat others the way you want to be treated.

I know what you’re thinking—this is contrary to what many of us were taught growing up. Despite the good intention behind what we learned as children, sometimes individuals from different cultures do not want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For example, while an American may prefer direct, straightforward communication, collectivistic-leaning cultures tend to prefer more indirect, context-driven communication. Refrain from assuming that just because you prefer something to be done a certain way, that others will agree with that approach. How can we know how others want to be treated? Just ask.


4. Don’t overestimate their linguistic ability.

Although your counterpart may speak English (or your shared language) well, that does not necessarily mean that their audiological, written, or reading skills are as proficient. With English as the primary international business language, it is often taken for granted that everyone can or should speak English at the same level as native speakers. Practice patience and compassion for your colleagues who speak English as a second language. Working across cultures is already difficult, and it can be even more challenging when trying to express yourself in a language that is not your mother tongue. Consider taking a training course to improve your cultural fluency.

5. Research the culture of the individual(s) with whom you work.

No one expects you to be an expert on a culture you’ve never assimilated into; however, a little research goes a long way. Spend some time researching the culture’s traditions, workstyle preferences, a greeting in the culture’s native language, any holidays coming up, etc. Create an opportunity to ask your colleague, from a place of curiosity, about what you researched. This creates a culture of inclusion in which your colleague may feel more comfortable to be their authentic self in your shared work environment.

6. Have compassion for yourself.

Working across cultures is a practice, and no one expects you to be an expert. Have compassion for yourself when you feel misunderstood or frustrated by an intercultural interaction. We were raised and programmed to think and behave a certain way—of course, there will be misunderstanding and tension when we find ourselves in situations where we must shift gears away from what we know and prefer. However, with practice and grace, we can interact with other cultures in a way that not only supersedes conflict, but breeds innovation from diversity of thought.

Remember that working across cultures is a journey. Approach the journey with curiosity and empathy, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what comes back to you.

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