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Communicating Across Cultures

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Cultural differences often lead to international business blunders.

Every country has its own way of saying things. The important thing is that which lies behind people's words.

- Freya Stark, The Journeys's Echo

Years ago, I asked a friend, (now my wife), from Hong Kong to visit me in Macau (on the south coast of China). She agreed to come the next Saturday afternoon. So I sat around and waited. Two o'clock turned into four o'clock and I finally called her. "I thought you were coming over to visit." She replied, "I am coming - next Saturday!" What I didn't realize was that in the Chinese way of counting time, "next" means "the Saturday following this one." That was my first lesson in communicating across cultures.

These days, people are traveling more than ever. Your next-door neighbor is as likely to be from Armenia as Arkansas. And your next business trip may take you anywhere from Mexico to Madagascar.

Communicating across cultures begins with the basic understanding that one size does not fit all. Simply because you practice certain cultural habits or patterns does not mean the rest of the world does. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" makes perfect sense in Rome, Romania or Rio de Janeiro.

David A. Ricks, in his book Blunders in International Business, writes: "Cultural differences are the most significant and troublesome variables ... The failure of managers to fully comprehend these disparities has led to most international business blunders." Failing to recognize and adapt to these differences can mean the difference between a done deal and a faceless failure.

Robert L. Stevenson, in his book Global Communication in the Twenty-First Century, says "language, more than anything else, is the heart of culture." Assumptions about culture affect the way people communicate with each other. Culture usually refers to the diverse ways in which people think, act or behave - toward themselves, with their families and with people in their own society. Culture includes customs related to religious, social, political and family values. Various cultures have divergent values for time allocation and use, for family values and conversation, and for "personal space." These differences need to be recognized, valued and appreciated before any real communication can take place.

The main criteria for understanding other cultures is simply to know your own. Very often, we don't know what our own culture is, so it's difficult to understand someone else's. Why do we shake hands when we meet? Why don't we discuss religion and politics in casual conversation? Culture provides a framework for acceptable behavior.

Listen with an Open Mind

When trying to communicate across cultures, put aside personal feelings and listen deeply. So learn to "hold your tongue" and develop your listening skills.

It's easy to offend others with seemingly harmless remarks. Comments such as "those people" or "they are all alike, except for you" or any statements regarding "us and them" create disunity and provide a poor backdrop to effective communication. The more you know about your own culture and other cultures, the greater your chances are of bridging these differences. Having an open mind and being sensitive to differences are key factors in making you a better communicator.

Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior

Language is much more than words. And every language has linguistic preferences. These linguistic preferences can often give clues about the behavior, manners, and thinking of that particular culture.

Look for the nuances in the way people from different cultures use language. For example, the English use understatement and modesty; they are sometimes vague to avoid any confrontation and extremely polite. Spaniards and Italians, on the other hand, like to be flowery with their language, preferring eloquence and expressiveness over exactness. Germans are very logical in manner and words.

Asians, including Japanese and Chinese, consider harmony an important virtue and will avoid confrontation at all costs. For that reason, they will often say yes to many things with the understanding of "Yes, I hear you" or "Yes, I understand," and not necessarily "Yes, I agree."


As Toastmasters, we realize the value of gestures. However, there are no universal gestures. (The only universal one would be a smile. A warm, friendly smile goes a long way toward conveying sincere interest in others). What might be considered a gentle gesture in one culture could be a gross gyration in another. For example, in the West, to beckon someone to come over, you usually hold out your hand with the palm up and then move your fingers, gesturing the person to come. In Asian cultures this is considered vulgar. This gesture in Asia is done with the palm facing down and then rolling the fingers.

Communicating across cultures takes great sensitivity and awareness. By studying other cultures, we become more insightful and adapt-able in our communication efforts.

No one expects you to know all the nuances of his or her culture. Just as others are expected to respect and understand your culture, they will make allowances for any missed cues on your part. Leave plenty of room for give and take.

To become successful as a cross-cultural communicator:

By Herbert_Lee

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