If an American colleague greets you by saying ‘Hi, how are you?’, how will you respond? Will you tell them how you are, share with them your frustration about the car that didn’t want to start, the neighbor who woke you up by mowing the lawn, or the happiness because your daughter just graduated? Do that, and you’re risking having that colleague avoiding you. Because, when they said ‘how are you?’, they used a common code, which in American English means nothing more than ‘hi’.
As Thomas and Inkson explain in their book ‘Cultural Intelligence: Living and working globally’, communication is at the heart of building social experience. In a business setting, whether we buy, sell, negotiate, manage, lead or work with others, we constantly communicate. And even though the idea of communicating a message seems simple – I will say it and you will listen – at the heart of many disagreements is a miscommunication. An intention that was misinterpreted or something you’ve said was either misheard or taken in a different way.
Things become even more complicated when different cultural preferences are involved. Our culture shapes our idea of communication and how we communicate. It gives us not just the words, but the tone, conventions of acceptability and the style of communication. For this reason, clashes of meaning in multicultural teams are bound to happen. However, whether these clashes will provoke discussion and creativity, or exclusion and conflict will depend on one thing at most: whether our team members have developed cultural intelligence and cross-cultural communication skills.
The best way to delve into the topic of cross-cultural communication is by answering the question – where can cross-cultural communication skills be particularly important? What are the situations in our work within and across different cultures that require the most culturally intelligent communication?
To answer the question, we’ve created a series of three blogs each focusing on a different cross-cultural business setting where our communication skills are challenged the most. In this one, we look at brainstorming.
Discussing, brainstorming and sharing ideas in multicultural teams
A colleague of mine, Tanja, once shared with me her experience of working on a team project for a multinational company. In her team, she had two people from the U.S., one person from a Balkan country, and one person from Afghanistan called Aina. Tanja kept complaining about Aina, a junior member of the company. She never contributed to team discussions and brainstorming sessions. She always kept to light, social topics and never showed any initiative to take a task on her own. In the end, the rest of the team stopped including her in discussions and decision-making and completed the whole project without her. They were all irritated by how lazy and irresponsible Aina was.
What Tanja didn’t know is that her team’s lack of cross-cultural communication skills caused Aina to feel excluded. Tanja and most of the team were very comfortable with speaking their minds, voicing their ideas and questioning those of others. Aina comes from a collectivistic and hierarchical culture that values group harmony, speaking only when it’s their turn to speak and after senior colleagues have already expressed their opinions. Chances are, she couldn’t compete with the rest of the team in their lively discussions and disagreements.
Culture and communication patterns
How do you know when it’s your turn to speak? Does your idea of a good discussion imply a creative chaos where everyone fires ideas as they come to mind and speak at the same time? Or maybe it looks more like an orderly exchange where people speak in tidy turns with a lot of pauses and enough time for everyone to finish their thought and think about what they want to say next?
The answer will depend on your cultural background and how it shapes your communication patterns. For example, people from Latin cultures are more used to jumping into conversations, interrupting each other and voicing their opinions. Some others, like Finns, see silence as an integral part of communication. It gives them and the other person time to think before they speak and enough room for everyone to express their thoughts.
Neither is better than the other. However, when these two cultural communication styles have to discuss and brainstorms ideas together, problems often occur. Those who are more used to interruptions and are less comfortable with silence can easily overcrowd the space for discussion and leave out those with a different communication preference.
Culture and participation norms (initiative)
Do you see initiative as a good quality? Would you admire a colleague who shows initiative and be happy to have them on your team? Or would you consider them a show-off, someone who thinks they’re better than others?
From the U.S. perspective, initiative is positive, a desirable quality that we want in our team. Team members from more individualistic and egalitarian cultures might be used to taking part in any discussion, voicing their opinions and taking initiative in team’s work.
On the other hand, collectivistic and hierarchical cultures rely on authority to bring solutions. Team members from Russia, Japan, or like Aina from our example, may not be accustomed to volunteering for solutions or challenging others, especially their senior colleagues and team leaders. Moreover, if the individualists aren’t familiar with the meaning of silence in different cultures, they could misperceive other team members’ silence as a lack of interest.
And if we add language barriers to the equation, the problem becomes even bigger. Interestingly, there is no direct Slavonic word for initiative and in Russian the loan-word initsiativa is often used as an insult!
Culturally intelligent communication is necessary for inclusive brainstorming
Culturally intelligent teams and leaders use their cross-cultural communication skills to leverage the power of cultural diversity that lies in the team. We need cultural intelligence in order to accommodate other people’s styles of communication and give them room to contribute in their own preferred way.
What can you do to develop culturally intelligent communication?
Firstly, you need to identify your own preferred style of communication. Use WorldPrism™ to learn if you’re more of an explicit or implicit communicator. Or ask your friends to tell you whether you’re more direct, specific and open or perhaps more indirect, imprecise and subtle when you communicate. Pay attention to how you communicate with those around you. Are you comfortable with voicing your opinion, or do you prefer to keep it to yourself? Do you jump in with a response as soon as you think you know what the other person means? How comfortable are you with silence in conversations?
Secondly, listen carefully and try to identify the patterns in how others communicate. Pay attention to what the person is saying, but also how they’re saying it. Look for gestures, intonation, facial expressions and, finally, silence.
If you’ve noticed that a team member is quiet and doesn’t contribute as much as others, ask yourself if you’ve listened hard enough. Encourage them by asking open-ended questions and giving them time to speak without interruptions. Learn about different cultural preferences with regard to communication in your team and manage those differences by agreeing on protocols and ground rules for meetings and discussions. Ensure that all team members can contribute by inviting each of them to speak equally and by insisting on pauses between comments so that everyone has time to finish their thoughts and think before they answer.
And finally, cultural intelligence and cross-cultural communication skills will maximize the potential of your employees, your teams, and the entire organization. They are crucial for building an inclusive workplace where a quiet but quite talented voice will not be overlooked. Because if it is, that voice will leave and go somewhere else where it can be heard.
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