5 Ways to Avoid Mistakes in Cross-Cultural Communication

Working cross-culturally can be exciting and rewarding, but even wise and accomplished communicators often stumble over some of the more common cross-cultural communication mistakes. Before you embark on your journey (or even if you’re midway down the road!) consider printing off this list and posting it somewhere you will see daily…when it comes to communication, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

1. Assume Good Intentions

Everyone cross-cultural worker knows this moment: You’re in discussion with an individual from another culture, when they say something totally offensive or rude. You’re taken a bit aback and feel defensive. How could they say that?

In this moment, especially if you feel tired from jet lag or overwhelmed with culture shock, it can be so easy to try to “correct” the individual or respond defensively, but doing so may damage the relationship and leave the other person baffled.

It’s hard enough to gauge intentions in your own culture, but cross-cultural guessing can be even trickier. It’s very possible the other person spoke based on some cultural frame of reference you don’t understand, or they simply mistranslated a word or phrase.

Take a step back. Take a breath. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Obviously not all interactions come from good intentions. It can be helpful to run the interaction by a trusted individual from within the culture who can help you understand what you might have missed.

For the time being, however, you’ll want to move on to #2 of this list, so that you can stay on track.

2. Ask Clarifying Questions

You’re in the midst of an interaction and something seems off, either relationally or informationally. Maybe the person suggested a plan that appears completely outside of the parameters of your contract with them. Maybe they said something that seemed to hold a sharp edge to it. Maybe you are just completely lost (it happens!).

Your best option is to ask a few questions to get some clarification.

Here are some clarifiers to consider:

  • It sounds like you might not be comfortable with this solution/situation. Can you help me see if there is something else I should consider?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • What is your perspective on this?
  • It sounds like you are saying………is that correct?
  • I’m not sure I understand the main issue, could you help me?
  • What resources were most helpful in coming to this conclusion?
  • It sounds like you found a solution for………..is that right?
  • Can you tell me more about that?

When shouldn’tyou ask clarifying questions? If you’re a newbie to the culture and the other individual said something that feels like a personal attack, it’s best to get the discussion focused back on the main point and then check in with a trusted local friend.

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For example, in certain Asian cultures it’s completely acceptable to say, “You’ve gotten a little fatter!” In fact, if you’ve been apart for a season and the speaker recognizes that you’ve gained weight, it shows their attentiveness to you.

Imagine the confusion if your counterpart thinks they are showing positive interest in you and you respond like a prickly cactus.

3. Don’t Trust Your Intuition

Whether you’re a business leader, aid worker, or foreign officer, chances are you got to where you stand today because of some really hard work and healthy dose of intuition…In fact, research suggests that many top business leaders got their roles by making intuitive decisions.

But here’s the thing: intuition isn’t some mysterious super-power you can pull out at will; instead, it is a conglomerate of observational skills that are highly informed by the culture you grew up in and the accumulation of your past experiences.

We’ve seen highly successful and intelligent individuals crash and burn when relying on their “gut” in cross-cultural interactions.

How do you remedy this situation?

Research, Research, Research. Read books. Ask questions. Observe interactions between members of the host culture. Pay attention to positive and negative responses to your own interactions with the culture.

By doing this you build up that weight of experience to inform your observations, but even cross-cultural workers with decades of experience in a given region find this one thing most valuable: Trusted local friends who let you run your experiences by them.

These individuals know their own culture and hopefully understand a bit of your culture; they can help you see a given situation through their eyes. A few minutes of consultation with a friend can save you from very embarrassing or even expensive mistakes.

4. Slow Down!

Native English speakers (and some non-native speakers) are notorious for speaking too quickly in cross-cultural discussions, even when they’ve been reminded repeatedly to slow down.

Whatever speed you think feels right, start from there and slow it down a notch.

One time it’s especially important to step back and check your speed is when you feel like you’re really “killing it”: Maybe you’re describing a product or course outline that you know inside out, or you’re passionately presenting steps to address food insecurity…it’s these times that you’re most likely to speak more quickly and slip into industry jargon or use figures of speech that mean little to your listeners.

5. Take a Reality Check. And Then Do it Again

Never assume your listener is tracking with you…it’s important to do regular check-ins and make sure they understand you.

Here’s the key though: Don’t simply ask yes or no questions.

Questions like, “Do you understand?”, “Did that make sense?”, and “Are you in agreement with this?” actually tell you nothing, because what your listener understood and what you think they understood could be two very different things. Additionally, in some cultures the individual will say “yes” just to save face.

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A better plan is to focus on questions like these:

  • I want to make sure that made sense. Could you tell me what you heard me say?
  • If you were to use this (business solution, lesson plan, etc.) at your place of employment what might it look like?
  • What is your understanding of this issue?
  • What do you think about this?
  • What parts of this would you like me to clarify?
  • What would it look like for us to work together on this?
  • What questions do you have about this?

Questions like these will vary in their effectiveness, so it’s important to pay close attention to how your counterparts phrase language and seek clarification. When possible use the same questions and wording that you’ve heard them use with you and others.

The reality is that you willmake mistakes. The good news, though, is that people often recognize the signs of a person who is genuinely seeking to understand and honor their culture. By becoming a student of the cultures you work with, you demonstrate a respect that at times will open more doors than a perfect marketing presentation or thorough product description ever could.