Cross-Cultural Communication

Like most countries around the world, the U.S. is a proverbial melting pot of cultures that we encounter almost everywhere. Including at work. The only real response is to embrace it, as cross-cultural communication can and does drive workplace success.

The U.S. already is home to thriving communities from various cultures. According to figures from 2018, more than 44 million people in the U.S. were born in other countries. So, even if there isn’t much cultural diversity in your workplace yet, things aren’t likely to stay that way for long. 

Cultural diversity can expose us to aspects of life that we would never have considered, even in our wildest dreams. It also can have significant benefits for your company.

Attract And Retain Top Talent

You can’t have cross-cultural communication without people, and when it comes to the workplace, you want the best people for the job. Your company can attract and retain top talent when drawing from a multicultural pool. A 2020 Glassdoor survey found that 76% of job seekers and employees think of diversity as an important factor when considering job offers, potential employers, or companies.

You can widen the pool of potential employees by including diversity in the recruitment process in a meaningful way. Doing this immediately sets your company apart from many others for candidates based locally, or in other parts of the country or world. A global-minded business not only will attract ambitious, talented employees, it will retain them—and this means lowering the costs of employee turnover.

Inspire Innovation

Our individual worldviews are shaped partly by our cultures, which can be limiting if everyone on the team shares roughly the same perspectives. The cross-cultural communication that happens in diverse teams can introduce different points of view. It also provides a truly eclectic mix of professional and personal experience. 

This can inspire creativity and innovation in ways that would not have been possible in a monocultural workspace. 

One global brand that can attest to the power of multiculturalism in meeting customer needs, problem-solving, and reaching new audiences is L’Oréal. The cosmetics company has enjoyed tremendous success in emerging markets, thanks to its culturally diverse product development teams.

Improve Marketing

Cross-cultural communication as a driver of workplace success is not limited to product development. The local market knowledge and cross-cultural understanding within a diverse team can lead to the creation of marketing strategies and materials that are effective while being sensitive to local cultures.

If your company needs to translate the website, brochures, and other material into another language, native speakers of that language should tackle the task. Native speakers understand nuances and sensitivities that non-native speakers might be unaware of.

Cross-cultural sensitivities aren’t limited to website, advertising, and brochure copy. The designs and other imagery your company uses in its marketing materials can benefit from communication across cultures too. 

Imagery and design that works in one context may be offensive in another. In worst-case scenarios, culturally insensitive advertising could seriously damage your brand. Meaningful cross-cultural communication and diversity in the workplace can help your company avoid those blunders.

Challenges Call For Cultural Intelligence

Cross-cultural communication in the workplace offers the above and other benefits. But it’s not without its challenges. One of those challenges is the differences in the way we communicate—and accents and languages are only part of it.

What we think of as ‘normal’ is largely a product of our cultural conditioning. Things are ‘normal’ because they’re familiar to us. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit into our idea of ‘normal’, we’re sometimes tempted to immediately judge it as something ‘wrong’. We make an assumption before we consider whether there’s a cultural explanation for the behavior.

Developing cultural intelligence and good verbal and non-verbal cross-cultural communication skills is essential for success in a diverse workplace.

Non-Verbal Communication

Most people are aware that people from other countries and cultures may speak different languages. We readily accept that there are differences in language, and we make allowances for that. What some of us might not be aware of is that there also are differences in non-verbal communication. It comes as a surprise to some people to learn that body language is not universal.

Everything from facial expressions to eye contact, and from touching someone to gesticulating with your hands, can mean different things in different cultures. 

For example, in European and European-derived cultures, it’s appropriate for businesspeople to shake hands. While in Japan, bowing is the preferred greeting. American job seekers are taught that making eye contact during interviews is respectful. To Ghanaians, however, making extended eye contact in that context is considered disrespectful and aggressive.

Consider implementing sensitivity training if you have a culturally diverse team in which non-verbal communication needs improvement.

Conflict Resolution In Culturally Diverse Workplaces

Given some of the challenges of diversity in the workplace, conflict is bound to arise sooner or later. Especially when employees are under pressure, busy schedules take their toll, and the demands of work pile up. Whether long-simmering cultural tensions get stirred up or a well-meant gesture gets misinterpreted, disagreements are par for the course. 

Employees may also have disagreements regarding workplace decisions, tasks, or processes—and it’s important to understand that your employees don’t necessarily see those disagreements as personal attacks. Furthermore, people usually are happy to resolve those disagreements in rational ways. If HR or management needs to intervene, they must do so in culturally sensitive ways.

Tips For Cross-Cultural Communication

The following tips for good communication in the workplace can be effective in culturally diverse contexts. 

  1. Be clear in your message—Do not leave things to chance, inference, implication, or interpretation. State your message clearly so that there’s no chance of misunderstandings.
  2. Clearly definite expectations—Ensure your team knows exactly what’s expected of them to avoid miscommunication.
  3. Listen carefully—Give your employees undivided attention when they share feedback with you.
  4. Ask questions—Ask employees questions and encourage them to do the same with you and with one another. Some workers might be reluctant to express their views if they’re not expressly asked to do so.
  5. Give positive feedback—Provide your employees with positive feedback to reinforce your valuing of their diversity.

The Way Forward

Diversity and cross-cultural communication are the way forward for businesses in the U.S. and around the world. Use this advice to help you navigate the topic, increase retention, and boost workplace satisfaction.

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