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Top Ten Tips: Improving Your Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

When it comes down to it, even in today's high tech environment, business is accomplished through human interactions. Moreover, successful business interactions rely on accurate communications. But even if your data, report or presentation is flawless in its content, it is how it is communicated and how it is interpreted through personal interactions that will determine your success.

Here are our top 10 best practices to help you improve your own, and your staff's, cross-cultural communication skills:

  1. Do Your Homework: Many cultures have certain etiquettes when communicating. It is always a good idea to undertake some cross cultural awareness training or at least do some research on the target culture. Make sure you have background information on your audience's country of origin.
  2. Have an Open Mind: We tend to be unaware of our own biases by placing stereotypes and cultural assumptions on others. Avoid evaluating behavior from other cultures as good or bad.
  3. Be Respectful: To ensure that you're conveying an appropriate level of respect, use a more formal mode of speaking and gradually scale back the level of formality as the relationship develops. In many cultures, business is taken very seriously. Professionalism and protocol are constantly observed. Many cultures will not appreciate the use of humor and jokes in the business context.
  4. Avoid Idioms, Slang and Sayings: Even the most educated foreigner will not have a complete knowledge of slang, idioms and sayings. The danger is that the words will be understood but the meaning missed.
  5. Slow Your Rate of Speech: This is one of the easiest but most effective ways to help non-native speakers understand you. Don't forget they need time to translate into another language. But, don't slow down too much as it might seem patronizing.
  6. Keep it Simple: Adopt a simple structure in your writing, and avoid giving long speeches. Break your sentences into short, definable sections and give your listener time to translate and digest your words as you go.
  7. Watch Your Non-verbals: People from other cultures aren't always going to take your body language or other nonverbal communications in the way you mean them. What you think is harmless may be offensive or confusing to them.
  8. Know Yourself: A knowledge of self and behavior patterns are critical to effective cross-cultural communication. You may have common habits, such standing with your arms folded, that could be mis-interpreted. 
  9. Write it Down: Sometimes people who do not have English as their mother tongue will read more proficiently than they speak. It is a good idea to always write things down as a back-up.
  10. Practice Active Listening: The last and best tip to improve your cross-cultural communication is to focus on the fundamental communication skill of active listening. Active listening is the single most useful way to overcome barriers to effective communication. We listen for meaning by checking back with the speaker to ensure that we have accurately heard and understood what was said. Communicating across cultures adds another layer to the "noise" that is already present, which makes it critical to add that extra step of checking back. 

Increasing our awareness of cross-cultural norms and improving how we then communicate with individuals that have origins from different countries takes time, focus and patience.

Please share your best practices so we can continue to learn collectively. (e-mail dhenry@donahue.umassp.edu)

The Organizational Development & Learning Solutions group of UMass Donahue Institute advances organizational learning and productivity by bringing together needed expertise to work collaboratively with our clients to build solutions. We apply our expertise in the corporate and public sectors; consulting to community organizations, government offices and global corporations. Using technology as a tool for delivering interactive instruction, ongoing collaboration, and insightful conversation we’re able to engage with clients and partners in a way that inspires learning and provides creative and customized solutions.

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