“Before knowing it better, I felt that most Finnish people were quite offensive to me. They don’t use words like “please, thanks, could you, ..” they would just say “ota” [take]. It took me we a while to realize they speak like that within each other also and that it is nothing personal for me.” – Team leader with foreign background, working in Finland
Based on experience and background, preferences and habits, giving and receiving instructions might be fundamentally different from one person or culture to another. Similar to the example above, a message might be perceived rude or offensive one way or another, even when that is not the speaker’s intention.
It is good to pay attention to your own use of both verbal and non-verbal communication in order to avoid unnecessary complications and misunderstanding when communicating in the working community.
Communication in the working community happens via written and spoken messages, instructions, emails, phone calls, non-verbal cues, etc. In order to support mutual understanding, it is good to discuss and agree on communication methods, tools, appropriate times, etc. for both official and unofficial communication.
Talk about how instructions are given, where official information is available, what terminology is used, etc. Make sure that everyone knows and can follow the ‘house rules’ of communication. Again, cultural and personal preferences plays a part in what is considered appropriate, official, unofficial, etc. For instance, a message sent to an employee’s phone after working hours might be ok for some, and then again can cause concern for others.
The checklists below offer some suggestions on what to take into consideration in workplace communication.
Tips for employers, team leaders, supervisors, etc.
Tips for employees
A workplace without email conversations is very rare in today’s world; sometimes emails substitute for long conversations.
Emails have the advantage to reach people in distant places within an instance, to have a written testimonial of a conversation, and to allow for sending additional information in files, etc. However, communicating via email is not without its challenges, as there are many opportunities for misunderstanding and ambiguity. Issues concerning email correspondence are quite frequent in today’s working life.
Written communication is very much a part of an interaction between humans, and it seems that some cultures prefer to send emails and messages rather than pick up the phone and call. As with hearing verbal messages, people can react differently to reading written messages. An email is not just text, but a composition of many factors. The sub context of the message (or the receiver’s perception) can depend on the length, tone, sending time, and composition of the message, for instance.
Culture, be it the company’s, industry’s, or a country’s, and unwritten rules of communication have an effect on how messages are received. Personal preferences are also good to keep in mind. Being polite and positive is a good rule of thumb for any means of communication.
When writing emails, consider keeping a formal tone and making an effort in the beginning at least. In time, a more relaxed approach might be ok, especially if the corresponding person initiates it. Cultural factors can be quite apparent with emails. For instance, in Finland people rarely use their titles and progress to a first-name basis quite fast. Then again in Germany, titles are very much used and addressing someone with their title is considered normal and appropriate.
Since email and other messaging functions do not include non-verbal communication, much of the subtle messages are missing. For instance, you cannot see what the person’s mood is, you can only guess based on the words or punctuation marks they use. And you can often also guess wrong. If you are not sure what a person is trying to tell you, ask them. Or if you do not want to ask them, trust the words. After all, no-one can expect you to be a mind reader.
Keep the above in mind when writing messages yourself. Be polite, positive and compassionate. Even if you are in a hurry, don’t leave out greetings, for instance. It’s often the details that make the most difference.
Tips for emails and messages
Difficult situations and challenges often involve unpleasant communication. Some people might find open conflicts or even vital debates unpleasant. Others might be uncomfortable being praised in public. Some people find it difficult to convey disappointment, criticism or refusal to a supervisor, colleague, or client, for instance. The scale is large, and high sensitivity is required in order to prevent closed doors or broken work relationships.
In order to have an inclusive working environment where everyone feels comfortable, and all opinions and preferences are respected and taken into account, it is essential to identify which topics and situations can make people uncomfortable. How do the team members feel about refusals, disagreement, complaining, or conflict? Discussing these will help generate a positive, prosperous working environment.
Food for thought:
In an intercultural context you will need various competencies at once, such as empathy, communication skills, listening skills, cultural frame shifting skills, etc. in order to navigate conflict situations smoothly.
Strive to will build trust and encourage successful communication between community members. Also, pay attention to what the others consider a conflict or unpleasant situation.
Tips for communication in challenging situations