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Building culturally aware communication skills 

Published on February 17th, 2023

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Cross-cultural misunderstandings at work can be really tough, right? Without the proper culturally aware communication skills, it might be hard to smooth out what happened here… 

A multicultural team in an international company team was having a brainstorming meeting. Suddenly, an employee called Minato, got extremely frustrated – enough to abruptly leave the meeting. Everything came to a halt, and everyone felt awkward. They were wondering what they had done to trigger this kind of reaction.  

Apparently, Minato had an important input, but couldn’t get a word in. He was always quieter and more reserved than the rest of the team, which is why his subtle attempts to capture their attention went unheard. As Minato tends to avert conflict and tries not to stand out too much, it was hard for him to talk over his colleagues for fear of coming off as pushy and offending someone.  

Once the shock among the group had passed, the team members realized how unimportant and unheard they had made Minato feel. They were aware his behavior was shaped by his cultural background, very different from their own, and that they haven’t taken that into consideration in the meeting. With many loud and over-the-top apologies, they coaxed him back to the meeting room. At last, the tension had passed, everyone got their say by the end of the meeting and the team had a good laugh together.  

Mistakes happen, but having the cultural awareness and culturally aware communication skills to know when to apologize is very important. It’s the best way to come back from a situation like this, but wouldn’t it be better to avoid them altogether?  

How to avoid miscommunications?

Don’t leave it up to chance and hope for the best. There is a lot you can do to develop the communication skills you need!  

The key is recognizing, appreciating, and respecting cultural differences between people. Start by learning about different cultures, their beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and, of course, their communication styles. It might sound like there’s a lot to take in, but if you know where to look, it can be like riding a rollercoaster – a little scary, and a bit strenuous, but exciting and rewarding in the end. 

Let’s start with the basics. Your personal culture has a set of unwritten rules that influence how you communicate. For example, Minato’s way of communicating was shaped by the fact that he highly values modesty, humility, and respect for others. Growing up in Japan, where communication is extremely high- context, silence sometimes speaks louder than words for Minato. This causes him to be very indirect and quiet at times. On the other hand, his colleagues communicate in a very explicit, expressive way, giving a lot of importance to showing emotion, even in business surroundings. To them, this sends the message they care and are invested in the problem at hand. They’re used to interruptions in conversation and find silence uninviting. 

Fortunately, Minato’s team has started to develop an awareness of each other’s communication styles and how to help each other feel comfortable. They’re awareness for cross-cultural communication has started growing. Minato started getting used to colleagues with a more explicit communication style, and his colleagues learned when to give Minato space to express himself. Without this adjustment, the team would not have had the benefit of his great idea, would be divided by the conflict, and eventually, Minato would probably leave. 

The shaping and changing of our cultural perspectives 

Another thing that influences communication styles can be a person’s understanding of how power and authority should be distributed across the hierarchy, as well as its shape.   

Some, like Minato, feel the best way to organize the employees of a big company is by putting in place a very strict vertical hierarchical structure. This is a common point of view in Japan, where society is modeled on the family with ordered relationships and respect for those in authority whose power is concentrated and rarely shared with others. Minato used to believe this kind of organization makes confusion and overlapping of roles less likely, which in turn leads to a more productive and efficient company.  

Over time, working with people from different cultural backgrounds and practices, especially the ones that tend to share responsibilities and authority, his views changed. He found that this might sometimes be the best way to empower employees to make the best decisions.  

Despite his newly formed attitude, we can still understand why it might be hard for him to find his place in an environment so different from what he’s used to.  

I want to be more culturally aware, what do I do? 

The answer lies in developing Cultural Intelligence (CQ). There are four elements of CQ that you can exercise: Attitude – your mindset and approach to interacting with people from different cultures, Awareness – your ability to recognize and understand the impact of cultural differences on behavior, communication, and decision-making, Knowledge – your understanding of different cultural practices, customs, values, and beliefs and finally Skills – ability to navigate different cultural contexts and effectively communicate and work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.  

Start with understanding your own perspective, recognizing that your normal isn’t necessarily normal for others. 

For example, one of our employees, Gina, once traveled to India and was invited to a colleague’s house for dinner. She was excited to try the local food, but she didn’t realize that in India, it’s considered rude to eat with your left hand. She was so focused on the delicious food that she didn’t even realize she was eating with her left hand until her colleague from India pointed it out. Needless to say, she felt pretty embarrassed, but it was a valuable lesson in understanding cultural customs. 

What would’ve helped Gina, and what can help you, is to focus on skills that can help you improve your CQ in the workplace, such as flexibility, curiosity and respect.  

Flexibility brings openness to new ideas and ways of doing things, and the ability to adapt to different cultural norms and expectations. This skill helps you avoid stereotypes and prejudices which is a crucial part of developing cultural intelligence.   

Curiosity helps you keep an open mind. Be curious about your colleagues’ way of interpreting the world and learn from them as much as you can. 

Finally, respect is much more than sheer tolerance. It means approaching each person with a genuine interest in their culture and experiences and treating them with dignity and kindness, regardless of cultural differences. 

Everybody makes mistakes

Keep in mind that nobody’s perfect. When trying to develop new culturally aware communication skills, we are all bound to make mistakes, so don’t worry if you do it too. Know that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process and that each mistake can be a new learning experience.  


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