The 12 Tricks for Communicating with Anyone in the World
Picture this: you're discussing a project with someone from your company’s office in Mexico. Your Mexican colleague speaks English, but you’re having a hard time understanding what she’s trying to say, and it seems like she’s feeling the same way. When the project is completed, the results don’t turn out the way either of you thought. This is just one example of how cultural differences in communication can lead to challenges within global teams.
Even if you’re not crossing oceans, time zones, or into new cultures — communication can be tough. Just think about how hard it is to communicate with your spouse or partner, kids, and friends. In international business, when we add the pressure of work and deadlines to language and cultural differences, communication gets complicated.
Cultural differences in communication can force conversations to break down and lead to stress and frustration in the workplace. To help ease the challenges of working and communicating with global teams, we’ve compiled the 12 tricks for successful cross-cultural communication with anyone in the world. After all, good intercultural communication is key for good business.
1. Take your time
Slow down when you’re talking. Pause. Give space. You don’t want to talk too fast, especially when you’re on the phone, because it can make it harder for someone who has to use more time to understand what you’re saying. Try breaking your sentences into short sections, and be conscious that your listener needs time to translate and digest your words as you go.
2. Don't be afraid to ask them to slow down, too
If the person you’re speaking with is talking too fast, or their accent is getting in the way, it’s okay to ask them to slow down too. A good trick is making it about yourself to avoid causing offense to the other person. Try saying, “You know, I’m from Texas, so I probably have a strange accent. Why don’t we both slow down a little, so we can understand each other better?”
3. Keep it simple
Don’t use big words. Two-syllable words are better than three-syllables, and one-syllable is even better. Don’t say, “do this in an efficacious way,” say “do this quickly.”
4. Ask for help if you need it
If the person you’re speaking to says something you don’t understand, let them know! “Global English” might be the world’s form of communication, but it changes from country to country. This is where a lot of cultural differences in communication come into play. For example, if an Indian colleague says, “do the needful,” you’re not going to come off as rude if you ask what they mean. (Pro tip: this means take the next step to make things happen.)
5. Avoid "baseball English"
Unless your coworkers are familiar with sports terminology, specifically baseball terms, they probably won’t know what you mean when you say things like “this is a home run,” or “step up to the plate,” or “that came out of left field.” You can easily avoid any confusion by keeping any baseball English in the dugout.
6. Skip acronyms
Acronyms, abbreviations, and even industry-specific terms usually don’t translate in other countries. Don’t assume that people will understand ASAP, ETA, or any of your special work abbreviations.
7. Don't just ask yes or no questions
Phrasing questions in a way that requires a yes or no response can make conversations awkward. In many cultures, it’s difficult or embarrassing to answer in the negative, so you’ll always hear “yes” — even if the right answer is no. Aim for open-ended questions that require information as the response. You may even want to try simply stating your situation and waiting for a response.
8. Get rid of double negatives
Let’s take it back to grammar class. Most of us know not to use double negatives in writing, but when we’re speaking, sometimes it just happens. When you’re speaking with foreign colleagues, you’ll want to be careful that you don’t accidentally confuse someone by using a double negative. On the other hand, some languages translate to double negatives in English, like Spanish. So if you’re speaking with a colleague from Spain, you might need to pay extra attention to what they’re saying.
9. Talk to more than one person
Many cultures imply meaning, so conversations might not include the whole story — and they’re assuming you know what they’re talking about. If you can, try talking to multiple people about the same thing to try and put together a better picture.
10. Start formal
Except for the US, Australia, Israel, and a few other countries, most countries expect some formality at the beginning of communication. Each culture has its nuances, for example, Mr., Mrs., and Ms. in the US, Herr and Frau in Germany, and the reversal of family and given names in China, and “san” in Japan. Don’t just jump to using first names, and only use them when you’re permitted to do so.
11. Pay attention to non-verbal cues
If you have the luxury of being face-to-face, another cultural difference in communication is non-verbal cues. Often, these carry more information than what’s actually being said, so you won’t want to miss them or misinterpret them. Facial expressions, proximity, physicality, and hand gestures all carry a lot of meaning. For example, the ok sign (made by making a circle by touching the tip of the first finger to the tip of the thumb) is a common US hand gesture, but in Brazil, it’s vulgar.
12. Be respectful. Be interested. Be humble.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re learning. Ask people about their cultures, and don’t force your cultural views or project your ways onto them. You should always remember that you’re a guest when you’re traveling to a new country, and if you’re speaking virtually, it’s polite to show that you respect your colleague’s culture.
Working with a global team is never easy at first, but as you learn the culture and they learn yours, communication will naturally start to work better. Need help getting started? Our CultureCloud Executive training provides the information you need to work successfully on a global team. With CultureCloud, you’ll be able to learn how to communicate and build relationships with your team. Interested in learning more? Check out our CultureCloud Executive training service, here.
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