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Simon talks to CMA Senior Consultant Elaine Lin about cross-cultural communication. As a Taiwanese-born, Chinese-American working in Australia, Elaine offers her insights on understanding what culture is, and how we define it in today's global society. They examine the key question: if cultures are about differences, and identification because of these differences, then how do we understand people in the face of difference, and consequently, manage others' understanding of us?
“He’s just coming back from having a fag” – reflections on cross-cultural communication
As an American living and working in Australia, the question of cross-cultural communication has been unavoidable. And this day was no different.
It was the end of our morning tea break, and I noticed that one of the participants in the negotiation workshop I was facilitating was still missing. In an effort to discover his whereabouts, I asked unsuspectingly, “Where’s John?” Trying to be helpful, his colleague replied, “Oh, he’s just coming back from having a fag.”
Now, that response may not shock you, but I… I was stunned silent. Speechless. All of the lectures about political correctness and white papers on tactful inclusiveness flashed through my mind. The champion of professional propriety in me got ready for battle. And for goodness sake, it was only 10:30am!
Mustering as much composure as I could, I stammered, “Mmm… what does that word me to you?” Very matter of factly, almost as if to say, “C’mon stupid”, another responded, “A ciggie.” Still seeing the shock and puzzlement on my face, someone took pity on me and said, “A cigarette. He’s coming back from having a smoke.”
I’ll tell you, the relief that washed over me was indescribable. To me, fag was such a derogatory word, so inappropriate, so offensive that I couldn’t even bring myself to repeat it on the day.
Which raises the question – what can we do to deal with those moments of shock or frustration that inevitably arise from communicating across cultures?
1) Anticipate differences
We’re all different. Whether based on borders, organizations, functions, families, gender, age or any other metric, we have different expectations about the way things should be done and understandings of what words and actions mean. Adopt a frame of mind where you expect that there will be differences (even if you are yet to figure out the specifics of what they are) such that there’s less surprise when they arise, which they inevitably will.
In the above instance, I started the day by revealing my revelation that Americans and Australians don’t actually speak the same language, asking people to bear with me, and translate if they saw my face go blank. Setting the stage to anticipate the differences allowed us to all have a good laugh as we unpacked the differences in assumed meaning.
2) Be clear about your intentions
One great challenge to communication is not understanding the other party as they intend to be understood. This challenge is ever intensified when words, actions or approaches hold different meaning to each of the parties. Be clear about what you mean, what your motivations are. Understanding where you are coming from and what you mean (or don’t mean) will help the other party hear your message.
For me, despite my shock in the moment, I suspected that these participants weren’t trying to offend so much as help me. That knowledge helped me to move beyond an initial reaction and unpack their meaning rather than demonize them for being inappropriate.
3) Verify your assumptions
Don’t assume you know what they mean, particularly if you’ve found it offensive. Your understanding of their words or actions may not be accurate – not because either of you is stupid, wrong or any of the other excuses that often come to mind – but because we have different understandings or expectations of what things mean. Share your understanding of the message they’ve sent. Check with them to clarify what they actually meant. When all else fails, ask the question, “what does that mean to you?”
How else have you dealt with the challenges of communicating across cultures? We’d love to hear your experiences.
We live in a fast-paced world. Face time is rare. The interactions we do have are quick, colored by time-pressure and the stress of everything else on our to-do lists. How does that affect the way we’re communicating with one another?
When time is a stressor, miscommunications are rampant. We’re quick to assume, and slow to question. We assume that if something affects us adversely that the person’s intentions must also have been adverse. That, or they’re just crazy. It’s much more efficient to just blame and demonize them than it is to try and unpack the complexities that might inform the situation. Our wants and needs are our sole focus. When we don’t achieve them, we become frustrated and even more fixated on everything that’s wrong with everyone else. We’re less likely to be looking for creative options that might address both parties’ concerns. We’re more likely to be positional – they throw up a roadblock, we want to throw up a bigger one. Frustrations boil. There’s no time to try and understand one another – and in fact, I’m so frustrated by them that I don’t even want to try.
And yet we know that all of these tendencies only compound the problem. How then, in all of this, can we still manage to communicate effectively?
Press pause – The instinct is to react. The client needs an answer, your colleague has just told you they won’t help, management is breathing down your neck. Fighting words are at your fingertips. Take that extra breath. Before firing off a response, think about the bigger picture. What is it you really want to achieve? How does this one interaction fit into the bigger picture? Do you really know what their intention was? Might there be a way that works for you both? Ask yourself these questions and then choose a purposeful response.
Make the investment – Negotiate how you’re going to communicate. One conversation about expectations and preferences (yours and theirs) can help avoid a whole host of miscommunication. If effective communication is about getting your message across, then knowing your audience and how they receive messages is key. What irks them? What do they think you mean? Take the time to clarify the intention behind your actions – making clear what you do and do not mean. You’ll reap the benefits of greater understanding and fewer messes to clean up on the back end.
Remember to appreciate – Each of us is only human. A bit of empathy for the situation or appreciation for someone’s effort can go a long way. A timely ’I know this isn’t the situation we hoped to be in. Thanks for hanging in there’ may be just the comment your team needs to power through and deliver. It’s low cost for you to make the comment and potentially high value for everyone involved. Hours of research and analysis may boil down to the two-line conclusion that pops up in your inbox. It may not be the answer you wanted to hear, but it was still someone else’s blood, sweat and tears (or it sure felt like it to them!) Recognizing the effort and expressing genuine appreciation will keep others motivated to continue to help you.
What else has worked for you? How do you manage the challenge of communicating in this fast-paced, high-stress world? We’d love to hear your thoughts.