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Speaking Across Cultures


Top 10 rules for communicating around the world.

In today’s globalized world of work, crossing borders is easy. Many of us do it almost daily: when we get on a plane for a conference or client meeting abroad, when we jump on a Zoom meeting with colleagues based in different locations around the world, or when we make presentations, in person or virtually, to increasingly global audiences.

But crossing cultures is hard. People think, decide, evaluate, behave, negotiate, manage, and communicate according to hidden rules that differ from culture to culture. Today, as more of us communicate with others around the world, the already complicated task of speaking clearly and effectively becomes even more difficult.

Here are my top 10 rules for communicating across cultures successfully … no matter where in the world you are.

10 Learn the communication style.

There are two types of communication styles: low context and high context. Low-context cultures communicate in a more direct way, putting all the important information they are trying to say into the words they use. High-context cultures are more indirect, intentionally disguising important facts inside the context of the communication.

For example, my client from the Netherlands, with a low-context culture, might say, “Please tell me what you don’t like about the terms of the agreement.” However, in a high-context culture, like in Japan, someone might say, “Please understand, there are many fine things about your proposal, perhaps just a few things need some further study.”

Remember, high-context speakers are not trying to be uncooperative when they avoid direct answers, and low-context speakers are not trying to be difficult when they ask direct questions. This is a difference in how they prefer to share information.

9 Evaluate the importance of relationships.

All cultures value trusting relationships between people, but people in some cultures require this trust before they feel comfortable working with you and your organization. People in other cultures will go straight to the task, and if it succeeds, they will use that success to justify a personal relationship.

In Brazil, a colleague might start by asking you personal questions because they are trying to get to know you in order to feel comfortable working with you. However, a colleague in Switzerland might initially resist spending time getting to know their team members until they have already worked together. They are both communicating according to their culture, just differently.

8 Learn how to socialize.

Taking the time to learn about someone requires more social time together, the details of which can differ between cultures. These details are the “do’s and don’ts” and the “taboos” that you need to know. This includes everything from how to dine, drink, dress, greet, give and receive gifts to the etiquette rules between genders, generations, and ethnic groups. While you’ll be forgiven for not knowing this at first (you are, after all, from somewhere else), you are expected to “get it,” and the sooner you do, the better.

Knowing how the socializing rules change from culture to culture is essential to communicating effectively. But if you don’t know, do not assume it is the same as back home in your culture. Act like the curious student: Communicate your ignorance and seek information. Most people love to talk about their culture, and your genuine interest will go far in building that all-important relationship.

7 Manage time-perception differences.

Some cultures are clock-bound: Time dictates what, when, and with whom people do things. Other cultures are time-flexible: Time—and schedules and deadlines—can, and should, always be ready to bend. This difference will affect how people communicate their priorities. Clock-conscious cultures plan, organize, manage project flows, rely on agendas, and take schedules very seriously. Time-flexible cultures see all the above as important, but not as important as being able to flexibly maneuver around time as situations may change.

6 How important are rules?

There are many cultures that make decisions based on rules, processes, and systems that are universal to all—no exceptions. Other cultures make decisions based on the immediate situation, the people involved, and what kind of obligations they may have with each other, despite the rules. Are rules meant to be obeyed or broken, and under what circumstances? Familiarizing yourself with the rules of different cultures will help you communicate and work with others more effectively.

5 Respect the need for “face.”

Some cultures prioritize the importance of maintaining a public persona built on respect, which affects how one communicates. For example, throughout much of East Asia, you must be careful to communicate information in a way that enhances the “face” of the person receiving the information, especially when others are observing. This means you are honoring and respecting someone, rather than criticizing or embarrassing them.

4 Learn how people organize information.

Everyone is capable of logic and rational thought, but cultures emphasize how we communicate our thoughts. Deductive cultures organize information according to an underlying process of thinking, which requires facts to be logically connected, leading ultimately to an irrefutable conclusion. Inductive cultures, on the other hand, lead with a conclusion and search for ways to make it happen (sometimes involving an underlying logical process, but not always).

For example, often my French colleagues will require me to justify my conclusions with logically connected details that substantiate my “argument,” while refuting any possible alternatives. But my British colleagues may ask me for empirical evidence that what I want to do will work. Conversely, my American colleagues welcome “bullet point” synopses of information on why what I want will work.

3 Determine the cultural comfort with risk.

Associated with deductive and inductive thinking is the comfort level for uncertainty. Risk- and uncertainty-avoidant cultures communicate information that reduces risks associated with any action. Therefore, they often require a lot of information before starting on a task. Other cultures are more comfortable with risk and uncertainty and will use “just-enough” information to take a giant step. My Korean colleagues may require more and more information from me before responding to my requests, while my Nigerian associates might suddenly decide, with little information, to move forward with the entire plan overnight.

2 How do they make decisions?

Individualist cultures reward individual initiative, action, privacy, and achievement. In collectivist cultures, teams and groups of people take responsibility for decisions only after building a group consensus. The United States, for example, is a highly individualist culture, where a team is a vehicle by which individuals can advance their own agendas. Japan, on the other hand, is a collectivist culture, where they try to make decisions as a group. It is important for people to keep in mind that communicating with an individual in a collectivist culture does not mean this person will communicate their own thoughts or ideas with you in a meeting, though they may do so in private.

1 Learn how authority is determined.

In some cultures, like Scandinavia and the U.S., authority is determined based on someone’s expertise. For example, someone might become a manager based on their experience and skill set.

In other cultures, like Korea and Egypt, authority is based on age, gender, ethnicity, tribe, or relationship. Is rank important—or not—and if so, how is it demonstrated? This affects whether you get to communicate with the decision-maker, or just a gatekeeper, and how you and others are expected to behave with authority, whether it’s a colleague, boss, subordinate, or friend.

Finally, remember that the communication style of any culture is the result of that culture’s particular mix of all of the above. This is what makes cultures so diverse. And that diversity offers an unexpected gift: the possibility of thinking, being, and communicating in new and different ways.

This article has been published by Toastmaster Magazine by By Dean Foster