As businesses become more global and interconnected, a focus on breaking down barriers in communication grows in turn. Without a working environment that is culturally sensitive, internationally focused, and most importantly, multilingual, the potential to get left behind increases as global markets expand.
Let’s take a look through 7 areas of international communication that should be addressed for your cross-cultural training. More than just verbal communication, there are other factors to monitor in order to unify and get the best out of an international workforce.
1. Cultural differences
Even when two countries share the same language, there are often significant differences between them. The culture shock experienced by travelers abroad is a prime example of how foreign customs can seem strange to those unprepared. Hence, as you steer your business towards a global marketplace, it pays to put cultural training at the forefront, ensuring your team is aware of how diverse cultural approaches can be.
But imparting cultural awareness is only half the battle. According to Andrew Molinsky, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Brandeis University: “the best training programs should also teach employees how to act in cultural situations that make them uncomfortable. That is, training would ideally teach employees ‘global dexterity.’” In practice, that means not only learning about cultural styles but challenging your assumptions about the ‘right’ way of doing things and adapting accordingly to best unify your teams.
2. Solving problems
The importance of problem-solving is difficult to overstate: it isn’t just part of running a business, it is the essence of the business itself: there’s no aspect of business that isn’t an attempt to solve problems, regardless of the product or sector. However, as with everything else, each culture has its own approach. Using the framework from Erin Meyers, The Culture Map, here are just a few differences that may arise when working with personnel or teams abroad:
Decision-making: Consensual versus top-down.
Disagreement: Confrontational versus avoidant.
Communicating: Explicit versus implicit.
Evaluating: Structured feedback versus informal feedback.
Leadership: Egalitarian versus hierarchical.
Although easy to neglect, these are key nuances to bear in mind for successful training for internal communication and cross-border communication. They lead team members to ask themselves which approach is more appropriate for dealing with all kinds of stakeholders so that they can tailor their approach accordingly.
Poor cultural understanding can disrupt effective communication and lead to failed negotiations, lost contracts, and stalled access to international markets. Having the right cultural training in place for teams to master cross-border deals ensures that your strategy is aligned with diverse cultural customs, not just different approaches to doing business.
Perhaps the greatest source of misunderstanding in intercultural exchanges is intent. In other words, while the direct meaning of a term might be clear, the meaning behind it may become blurred by viewing the situation through a single cultural lens. So, where an English manager might say a piece of work is “fine”, someone native to the culture will probably understand that this means it’s okay but could be better. However, for countries with more direct communication styles, like the US, the statement would be taken at face-value: fine means fine.
Meaning also shifts considerably between cultures which value hierarchy, vs. those that value a more egalitarian ‘all in together’ approach. While agreement might be taken for consent in countries like the US, in places like Japan, it’s more likely a sign of politeness. Similarly, while first name terms might be taken for a sign of friendship or equal status in India, in large parts of the West, this would not necessarily signify a close bond.
Training that delves deeper into these cultural misunderstandings only helps to build more empathetic teams who know exactly how to communicate internally & externally for the best impact. This, in turn, supports the growth of businesses.
4. Language barriers
The difficulties of communicating in business are well known. But what can often be overlooked is how speaking in a foreign language can be just as impactful. A 2020 European Workplace study from Delloite found ‘learning a foreign language’ to be the second-highest skills gap respondents needed to fill.
Without a language in common, exchanging ideas can be next to impossible. Language e-learning is a great way for HR & L&D managers to familiarise their team quickly and effectively in foreign languages, so that, even when not fluent, they have a sound grasp to confidently approach internal and external meetings.
Learn more about our flexible & effective language learning solution.
With that being said, being fluent in a language doesn’t necessarily mean that all communication differences have been overcome. Non-verbal communication plays just as important a role, with most nationalities either being ‘high context’ or ‘low context in their interactions. In practice, high-context communicators rely on nonverbal cues, whereas low-context speakers rely on the verbal aspect of the interaction or the written word. Sometimes, tone can be important too, with how something is said sometimes having more weight than what is said.
5. Greetings and customs
Although colleagues and clients overseas probably won’t expect you to be familiar with all their customs and traditions, familiarising yourself with their honorifics and greetings will still go a long way. Before helping staff members traveling abroad, make sure to research whether they use a formal “you” at their destination (e.g. “vous” in French, “sie” in German) and whether the country in question has a relaxed attitude to hierarchy and is okay with using first names.
Another simple ‘quick win’ activity L&D & HR managers do as part of their cross-cultural training, is creating region-specific calendars with public holidays and religious festivals for their team to be aware of. As the business’ international contact list grows, these calendars will help teams ensure they understand when to reach out to their colleagues & clients.
On an internal level, showing awareness of cultural customs and holidays also helps to foster an inclusive company culture that boosts employee experience.
Miscommunication is another area to look out for. In the context of cultural training, this is where you are using the right words in the right way, but are overlooking the broader cultural context in which the message is being conveyed.
Let’s take an employee receiving performance feedback at an overseas branch as a scenario. If they are in the US, they may come away with the impression that their work is perhaps better than it really is: American managers tend to highlight the positives and minimise the negatives. Conversely, if employees are working in a country like France or Germany, where managers tend to provide direct, blunt feedback, the employee might think their work is worse than it really is - at least where they are used to a less straightforward approach.
Hence, while etiquette (how to greet, give gifts, etc) can’t be overlooked, these deeper core values are much more important in the long run. Attitudes to creativity are important too: what in the West we might perceive as ‘taking the initiative’, in Asian cultures might be seen as wayward and even undisciplined. Differing styles like these are often linked to broader attitudes toward hierarchy.
Make sure your cultural training incorporates, not just the requisite pleasantries, but the underlying patterns of value that steer interactions at all levels of society.
7. Impact on businesses
By undergoing training in your business partner’s culture, staff will spend less time second-guessing cultural norms and have more time to build long-lasting, productive relationships built on common ground. With deep knowledge of local customs, hierarchy, punctuality, direct and indirect communication, colleagues and partners alike should become vastly more adept at supporting each other internally and transacting overseas.
But that’s not all: there are many hidden benefits to cultural training. For example, when carrying out a market report to assess customer intent abroad, you will likely encounter a host of cultural values (often implicit rather than directly stated) steering the decision-making process. Understanding what these values are and how to respond to them will ensure you support your team with the right training in closing cross-cultural knowledge gaps.
Get in touch, and learn how Busuu can help bridge the cross-cultural gaps in your international team through language learning.