Only because we speak in the same language, we don’t necessarily understand each other. Words and phrases can carry different meanings, and when one lacks cultural understanding or knowledge of the context, misconceptions happen easily.
When you live in a certain culture or community for a long time, you learn about different meanings and concepts, and can interpret the meanings of messages better. If you enter a new culture or community, it will be more difficult to interpret situations and messages, and unless you have someone to explain them to you, you are likely to misunderstand even everyday things.
Consider the following example:
”The colleagues in a nursing home in Finland were amazed by the diligence of the Filipino nurses: ’We knew that they were diligent but that they don’t even want to take coffee breaks!’ Turned out that the newly recruited thought that the coffee breaks literally were meant for enjoying a cup of coffee. The nurses being tea drinkers continued to work ‘til it was explained what ’a coffee break’ really was: a stipulated short break for all nursing personnel.” – Finnish Senior HR specialist
While it was clear for the others that taking a ’coffee break’ does not mean that you specifically have to drink coffee, the new colleagues were not aware of that. This example underlines the importance of clear communication and explaining even the obvious, for very few things are obvious to a newcomer in a new cultural environment.
Food for thought:
Think about what situations or habits are considered ’normal’ or ’obvious’ in your working community. Consider a normal day at work, what happens during it, how do colleagues communicate and interact with each other, what’s the typical routine, etc. Consider also concepts of quality, time, working style, etc. and the words used in relation to them. Is there something that you should point out or explain to a newcomer? Or, if you are a newcomer yourself, is there something that puzzles you?
Discuss these in your team and make sure that everyone has a similar understanding of the concepts, habits, words, etc. Keep in mind that the working culture should be equal and allow everyone the same rights and responsibilities. Special treatment should be reserved to special cases, and they should be clearly defined as well. This should extend to working hours, breaks, use of company equipment, etc.
1. Consider the aspects that may influence communication, such as culture, emotions, motivation, temper, and values. How do these show in a communicative situation? For instance, the way people talk can be assertive, aggressive, submissive, manipulative, relationship oriented, task oriented, direct, or indirect.
2. Using the example above, how does one’s way of talking affect how the message is perceived? What happens when the communicative interaction happens in an intercultural context? How can that change the interaction and why?
3. Identify the ways you communicate, what your style is, etc. Then, reflect on your communicative interactions with people and what the end result has been. Conflict situations are good examples when looking for characteristics or habits to develop. Is there something that stands out? Could you do something to improve your communication and the end result of communicative situations?
Let’s consider an example: You have identified that you tend to communicate quite directly. For instance, when thinking about setting up a meeting, you would simply tell your team member to schedule a board meeting. In a communicative situation you notice that your team member tends to communicate in an indirect manner. A short, direct message might sound like an order to them, even if you did not intend it to be.
How could you change the sentence ’schedule a board meeting’ to make it more indirect and therefore adjust your style flexibly to that of your counterpart? *
4. Identify your colleagues’ conversation traits and think what adjustments you could make to your style to ensure that your message is received as you intend it to be and communication is successful. Check for example the Toolkit’s articles Non-verbal communication and The Fours Sides Model.
– I would like you to organize a board meeting, please.
– How about organizing a board meeting?
– Can you organize a board meeting, please?
– Wouldn’t it help to have a board meeting?
Briefly explained: An intercultural context is one where certainty, plausibility and security are lower due to the fact that there is a perceived difference with the person you are encountering. Humans tend to act on intuition, which in most cases is based on habits, previous experience and unconscious knowledge. Misunderstandings can occur if the interpretation of the message or situation is not correct or relevant in that cultural or situational context.
When one’s knowledge base, experience and communication skills grow, one can move from being a passive, intuitive-driven actor, to an active, conscious actor, especially in intercultural context.
The best way to learn about anything is usually by immersion and experience. For instance, you are most likely to understand and successfully navigate in a working community after having worked in that community for a while. You can also expand on your own knowledge with background material such as books, films, and courses.
However, be mindful that while people in a community will share similar characteristics in behaviour and communication, they are also individuals with personal styles and preferences.
To be able to communicate effectively you need to have behavioural abilities such as empathy, tolerance, role awareness, flexibility and the ability to stand uncertainty. These skills will help you be more responsive to the other person in an intercultural context.