The anecdotes you’ll find here are all true. These are actual a-ha moments from a group of friends and family, both Westerners traveling abroad and people from other countries living and working in the United States. These people all approached their international experiences with wide-eyed wonder, learning as much about themselves and their place in the world as they did about the cultures and peoples they worked with overseas…
You feel excited and challenged by your role as a project manager of a multi-cultural team in Asia. You’ve done some intense brainstorming, generated solid cost-benefit analyses, and started a few new projects. Your boss seems pleased with your work and you’ve bonded over street food with your non-American team members.
Everything seems to be going really well.
Until one day you overhear a Central American team member expressing her frustration to another team member:
“This isn’t an international team. It’s a North American team that runs on a U.S. timetable using U.S. communication styles and managing projects based on U.S. principles. The Asians and Central Americans don’t have any real input in these projects. What’s the point of having us here?”
The Challenge of Cross Cultural Communication and How It Can Influence Perception
Spend a little time interviewing non-American members of international teams and you might be surprised to discover a common frustration: A sense that the American team members have taken over, leaving others little room to offer valuable insights.
Experts note anywhere from 5 to 12 major challenges faced by cross-cultural teams, but for the purpose of this article we will specifically be looking at the challenges most relevant when team members are starting to feel like the project has been usurped by an “American takeover.”
1. Direct Versus Indirect Communication
A young aid worker from the U.S. had a “light bulb moment” one day when trying to make plans with her team’s Chinese driver: if the driver gently sucked air through his teeth and responded, “sure, we could also do that” the answer he was actually trying to convey was “no.” The next time she was in a tricky discussion with a Chinese counterpart and didn’t want to come on too strong, she copied this driver’s mannerism and words. The Chinese counterpart immediately suggested other possible responses to the problem and they soon found a solution both were happy with.
“Looking back, I realize that Chinese were politely telling me ‘no’ for over a year, and I would just roll right on with my suggested plan,” she laughs, slightly embarrassed.
For direct communicators like this American aid worker communication usually involves:
- Clear, written explanations of expectations, roles, and plans
- The expectation that communication should be taken at face value—few or no hidden meanings
- Direct questions aimed at determining the other party’s preferences and opinions
- Verbal expression of disagreement, either during group discussion or individually with the leader.
For those cultures that prefer less direct communication, however, expectations include:
- Information that is implied (and in their culture, generally understood) but often not clearly declared
- Meaning is wrapped in the layers of how information is communicated
- May “talk around” the issue instead of addressing it directly
- Responses like “maybe” or “possibly” or “later” often mean “no”
- Body language and slight facial expressions may carry more weight than actual words.
The perception of people from cultures that communicate in a manner that is less direct than what we’re used to is that Americans and other westerners don’t respond to common and universally-understood cues. Because of the misunderstanding that arises from this, they often come away feeling their ideas and needs are unheard or unnoticed.
2. Discussion Styles: Speaking Versus Listening Cultures
As one graduate student from China put it…
“Sometimes the Americans speak so quickly, interrupting each other or jumping in as soon as the last sentence is finished. There’s no space to think!. I can’t figure out when it’s appropriate to jump in and when doing so is rude, and I also never have time to really consider what was just said because someone else starts talking.”
In speaking cultures, discussions are often ruled by these subconscious beliefs:
- Long pauses are uncomfortable
- Pauses suggest the other party doesn’t know the answer or doesn’t have a response to your proposition
- Silence may suggest indifference, unhappiness with the proposition or anger
- A silent individual may have nothing to offer
Listening cultures tend to approach discussions with the following mindsets:
- Long pauses demonstrate respect because they show you have reflected on the previous comment or question
- Pauses help facilitate a state of overall calmness
- Pauses can mean polite disagreement, but not always
Western speaking habits tend to result in taking more turns during a discussion than someone from more of a listening culture, like that found in China. As a result Western voices are the ones most heard, and their opinions and plans become most dominant and most likely to be put into action. For those whose communication styles are more aligned with listening than speaking, this can leave them with the feeling that Westerners are overbearing and inconsiderate.
As an additional note, certain cultures (particularly those from Italy and many parts of Latin America) tend to be even more extreme with speaking and interrupting, leading Americans to subconsciously view them as rude or immature. When you’re tempted to think negatively in these moments, remember that this is likely how those in “listening cultures” perceive you.
3. Accents and Fluency
Over and over non-American workers express frustration over the impatience U.S. team members demonstrate with their slow communication. As one person we spoke to put it…
“I know it takes me longer to say what I need to say, but when the Americans jump in and finish my sentence or don’t leave space during a discussion to think, they’re saying ‘your ideas aren’t important enough for me to wait for’.”
Because English is the currency language of exchange, so to speak, this automatically puts you, the native English speaker, at an advantage:
- You need less time to put your ideas into words.
- You might subconsciously perceive those with accents or who make grammar mistakes as less intelligent or sophisticated, and so the team may unintentionally give their opinions less weight.
- You or other native speakers of English may become impatient with the silent spaces and extra time needed for non-native speakers to communicate, especially if you’re coming from a fast-paced, corporate environment. Non-native speakers can pick up on this impatience and refrain from speaking.
4. Attitudes Towards Hierarchy and Authority
Darna, a young woman from the Philippines, expressed surprise and confusion when her American team leader asked why she wasn’t actively contributing to team planning. As a new associate, Darna felt her role during meetings was to learn from top leadership, listen to their plans, and implement any specific duties they assigned her. She had no idea that in this formal setting a junior team member could be expected to contribute so significantly to the discussion.
Coming from a culture that sees leadership through a highly hierarchical lens, Darna made the same assumptions many non-Western workers (and even some Westerners) would make in her situation. Her team leader was used to more egalitarian modes of leadership, which lead to his unspoken expectations that she should assert herself and get involved without being asked.
More egalitarian cultures like Denmark, Israel, and the U.S. prefer:
- The leader to function as facilitator among equals
- Communication that follows most efficient lines, even when it skips levels of hierarchy
- Nearly equal deference for all members of the team, including leaders.
More hierarchical cultures like China, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico prefer:
- A strong leader who stands out front and gives directives
- Giving high priority on status
- Significant deference in speech and attitude to be displayed towards leaders and those higher in the company structure
- Communication that follows the lines of hierarchy… failing to do so communicates contempt or disrespect
Because those from egalitarian cultures feel comfortable addressing their leaders directly their voices are more likely to be heard. In addition, their tendency to skip levels of hierarchy to address issues more efficiently can cause those from hierarchical cultures to feel that you’ve gone behind their backs, even if they ultimately had no direct influence on the issue at hand.
5. Conflicting Norms for Decision Making
In general, the internationals we spoke with expressed confusion over the American approach to decision making. Common questions that seem to come up include:
- How are decisions made? By the boss or the team?
- What role do the team members have in the decision making process?
- Why does it seem like decisions are made before the issues have been fully examined?
- Why are decisions sometimes made without consulting the team first?
- Why did someone lower on the totem pole get the right of final say on a given decision?
One Japanese manager working for Mitsubishi told the Harvard Business Review that he found the U.S. culture surrounding hierarchy and decision-making “contradictory and puzzling.”
The confusion arises in part from assumptions that more relationally egalitarian cultures (i.e., you call the boss by their first name, values are emphasized instead of rules) should also make decisions based on consensus. While this is true in some Western countries, it is not necessarily true in the U.S.
Top-down decision-making cultures like the U.S. tend to operate in some very specific ways:
- The supervisor has the ultimate say and makes a decision based on the available information
- For the sake of speed, the supervisor may put the right of decision-making in the hands of a given employee that they see as most knowledgeable in the area in question
- Decisions are made relatively quickly, often without deep analysis
- Decisions are flexible and can be adjusted in the light of new information
Consensus-based decision-making cultures like Japan focus on:
- Gathering the team and coming to a decision all members feel comfortable with
- Allowing many people to take part in the negotiation process
- Giving plenty of time for deep analysis and discussion
- Making fixed decisions: once the group agrees, the time for change has passed
- Speedy implementation once a decision is made
If the manager or team leader is from the U.S. and makes a decision without consulting all members of the team (which often happens in both decisions we view as urgent and those with less importance) those from consensus-based cultures may assume they were intentionally left out of the process or that their input is not valued.
Tips for Cross-Cultural Team Members
1. The 18 Second Rule (Plus. Some)
Research has shown that internal processers usually take 18 seconds to formulate their thoughts before they can respond to a question or idea.
For non-native speakers, time needs to be added for language decoding, allowing for silences that last for as much as half a minute during a discussion.
To get the best results, it’s important to explain to the whole team that this is your method. That way the more fluent, verbal processers will understand and not feel pressured to “fill the silence.”
2. Do a Little Research So You’re Not Flying Blind
This should go without saying, but it’s amazing how many workers fail to take the most basic step by hitting up Google for some basics on the communication styles of team members from other cultures.
Instead of overwhelming yourself with information, focus on one culture a week to learn about and then watch for evidence of the things you’ve learned during team interactions.
3. Find a Friend
Seek out individuals you seem to connect with and ask them if they would be willing to help you better understand their culture’s communication style, even asking if after meetings they would be willing to occasionally do a check in to see if you missed any cues during the meeting.
4. Question Your Assumptions
Everyday we make dozens of assumptions about how things “should” be done. When you find yourself getting frustrated or annoyed by how another team member is approaching the work, step back and interview your assumptions:
- Why do I think it should be done this way?
- What might be some advantages of approaching things differently?
- What about my culture brought about this assumption?
- Are there any disadvantages to using my preferred method when working on a cross-cultural team?
5. Be Humble – It Covers a Multitude of Mistakes
Humility and a willingness to admit error can go a long way in smoothing over relationships and helping others feel that you’re a team player.
Simply pulling a co-worker aside and saying , “Hey, I think I might have said something offensive or that caused discomfort to the group yesterday. Do you have any insight on this?” shows a willingness to learn and can change the whole atmosphere of group discussions.
Tips for Team Leaders and Managers of Cross-Cultural Teams
1. Call a Meeting Specifically to Discuss Potential Issues with Communication
Planning a team meeting devoted to addressing cultural issues can help the team start off on the right foot.
Discuss some of the points and potential pitfalls described so far in this guide and ask team members where they see themselves on the continuum. If they aren’t comfortable talking about themselves, ask them to give an example of where they have seen these dynamics at play in their home culture.
2. Set The Expectation that All Communication Will Be Direct
Cross-cultural experts agree that when it comes to communication, teams need to strive to be extremely clear and direct, even when this isn’t the cultural norm for some members of the team.
Directness is key since even among cultures that may fall into the same general communication style category, there are still cultural differences that will have a huge impact on how things said (and unsaid) are interpreted and understood.
For example, Spain and China are both high context, indirect cultures. More is spoken through body language, tone of voice, specific word choice, and even idioms than is ever communicated directly.
China’s indirectness comes with over 5,000 years of Chinese history built in, a history that is very different from Spain’s. As a result, body language and words that to a Chinese co-worker might convey strong disagreement may mean nothing to the Spanish co-worker, even though that individual is also from a culture known for what we would consider indirect communication. The Chinese co-worker may become offended that their “obvious” disapproval was ignored.
By agreeing to strive for direct communication that does not mince words or rely on anything that could be open to subjective interpretation, and then regularly checking-in to make sure everyone understands what is being discussed, the team can avoid a world of difficulty.
3. Clarify Team Culture
Making sure everyone knows what the leader expects from the group can help diffuse irritations between group members. Some examples where clarification might be needed include:
- What does it look like to share ideas and opinions on the team?
- Who makes final decisions? Are non-supervisors ever invited to make decisions?
- Does criticism and/or disagreement happen during group discussion, or one on one after the group discussion is over? Do you speak directly to the individual, or do you bring your concern to the supervisor/team leader?
- What kind of grace will be given or not given for lateness?
- To what level are lower-rank individuals expected or encouraged to contribute to the discussion?
- What does it look like for the team leader to move things forward when the team is stuck?
- Does everyone understand that rephrasing and repeating what others have said isn’t offensive, it’s a necessary method to make sure all team members understood the speaker and are on the same page?
- What does it look like to create enough space for everyone’s voice to be heard, especially when taking into account speaking/listening cultures and fluency issues?
4. Practice Affirmation
Affirmation is important for all team members, but take special care to build confidence in those who don’t often contribute or are part of the non-dominate group. This will help them feel valued and increase the likelihood that they will speak up and contribute.
Some team leaders and managers are tempted to push others into working according to their own culture. “Hey, they’re part of a team with an American boss, they can learn to bend,” is an unfortunate but still common attitude.
It’s also very short-sighted.
A happy, culturally-sensitive team is more likely to work hard and produce solid results. They’re also less likely to create time-sucking drama that ultimately ends in individuals leaving and putting you in the position of spending precious time looking for new hires.
Feeling humbled yet? It’s true that working cross-culturally means you’ll run into some significant challenges, but the good news is that with a little humility, clear communication, and intentionality, the differences among members on your team becomes a strength. Understanding and embracing those differences will also empower you to better understand the whole picture and the cultural context in which your work is being done.
The goal is not for you as an American to completely lose your own culture; instead it is for you to help foster a unique team culture that honors each member. In this situation each person bends and makes allowances so that no one individual or cultural group is pushed to bend so hard they break.