A businessman orders a plate of spaghetti at a restaurant while on an expatriate assignment in Uzbekistan. When it’s placed in front of him he questions the waiter about the unusual smell. The waiter responds, “They are fine. Other people ate them before you.” (2009. Cross-cultural misunderstandings…) In China, an American English teacher uses the popular American game Taboo to teach vocabulary. The word was “baby” and described by saying, “So a man and a woman love each other very much…” A student shouted out “FINGERING” at which time the teacher burst out laughing. The student was confused about what the teacher found to be so humorous, because in China when a man asks for a woman’s hand in marriage, he is offering a finger ring (2005. Your stories: The funniest teaching experiences in China). In this blog we’ll discuss the importance of cross- and inter-cultural training and their benefits on corporate ambitions.
Cross-cultural communication is a process whereby individuals from different cultural backgrounds attempt to share meanings (Moran, p. 40). Examples, such as the businessman and American teacher, illustrates how important the awareness of intangible culture (language, customs, beliefs, values, and mores passed from one generation to the next can impact communication among group members (Moran, p.41). Thanks to alacritous changes in technology, international business is no longer the exception, but rather the norm in most business settings. So, how can one who is on a short-term assignment or an long-term expatriate experience prepare for immersion in a foreign culture?
There are techniques one can utilize to prepare for the assignment, minimize culture shock, and prevent premature departure. Cross-cultural or intercultural training companies have emerged in the last 10 years providing coaching, preparation and education to employees who are about to embark on living or working abroad. Trainers range from formally educated intercultural communications professionals to spouses of former expatriates who have personal ‘on-the-ground’ experience. Carl Burke, manager of Human Resource Global Services at Guidant Corporation suggest that expatriate assignments costs from $150,000 to $200,000 a year for us to keep a family abroad (Lang. 2004). So why do companies invest tens of thousands of dollars preparing employees and their families for these assignments? This lofty investment in providing culture and communication specifics to employees are aimed at kicking-off or maintaining the objectives of the company on task.
According to PSL Corp, below is a list of the top ten tips for improving your intercultural communication skills:
- Do your homework – research the cultural norms, standards and communications
- Ask questions – show your willingness to admit you don’t understand where you lack cultural knowledge
- Accept that you’ll commit errors – use your mistakes to learn; apologize when warranted
- Avoid jokes, colloquialisms and idioms – humor is culture oriented, and word groups may have different translations (i.e. It’s raining cats and dogs…it’s not literally raining cats and dogs)
- Practice active listening and observing – the process of information gathering; active listening demonstrates to the speaker that you understand what is being said
- Repeat or confirm what you think is being said – does the culture employ a high- or low-context culture of communication
- Avoid asking yes or no questions – use open ended questions allowing others to explain making it easier to understand the context
- Pay attention to nonverbal communication – similar body cues can have different cultural reactions and is frequently culturally distinct, this includes hand and arm gestures and eye contact
- Speak slowly and clearly – take the time to think before speaking can help avoid communication issues and words of regret
- Enjoy the experience – learning to communicate is a lifelong lesson
According to Janet Bennet, executive director of the International Communication Institute, intercultural training should no longer be limited to just those seeking an expatriate assignment. “Intercultural training seeks to teach people the knowledge, skills and motivation to communicate effectively and appropriately in a wide variety of cultural contexts,” according to Bennet, which can be applied to almost any work environment where people need to better understand how to communicate with foreign colleagues (Lang, 2004). When deciding to engage in cross- or intercultural communication training, it’s important to consider the tips for improving your communication style. Otherwise, you may end up with a finger ring or plate of spaghetti that someone already ate before you!
Cross-cultural misunderstandings… got one? (2009, March 28). Retrieved from https://globalcoachcenter.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/cross-cultural-misunderstandings-got-one/
Lang, Gretchen. (2004, January 24). Cross-cultural training: How much difference does it really make? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/24/news/crosscultural-training-how-much-difference-does-it-really-make.html?searchResultPosition=1
Moran, R.T., Abramson, N. R. & Moran, S.V. (2014). Managing cultural differences. (9th ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Photo clipart. (2015, March 12) Review the ten commandments of intercultural communication. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://joyofcommunication.blogspot.com/2015/03/review-ten-commandments-of.html
PSL Corp. (2017, October 6). 10 tips for improving your intercultural communication skills. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.pslcorp.com/nearshoring-outsourcing/10-tips-for-improving-your-intercultural-communication-skills
Your stories: The funniest teaching experiences in China. (2015, December 9). eChinacities. Retrieved from https://www.echinacities.com/expat-life/Your-Stories-Funniest-Teaching-Experiences-in-China