Lost in Translation: Managing Intercultural Communication

With the global workforce becoming increasingly mobile, many of us will only need to venture to the office to be faced with the pitfalls – and potential rewards – of communicating across cultures. You may be dealing with conference calls or visiting one of your organisation’s overseas branches – or simply trying to make sure all members of your team feel comfortable and valued. In any case, it’s increasingly important to be aware of your colleagues’ outlook, assumptions and needs – sometimes arising from their national, cultural and linguistic background.

In short: cultural diversity and work and in life can be confusing.

Given the increasing diversity of Cambridge’s student body – especially at postgraduate level – your “colleagues” may as well be working with you on a group project, or co-running a student society! While the topic can by no means be exhausted in a blog post (or even a hefty book), here are four useful things to bear in mind:

Get to know your team

If your team at the workplace come from different countries or backgrounds, try to educate yourself on those specifically. Do your homework first: with hundreds of online articles at your fingertips, you shouldn’t have to single out individuals and ask (too many) awkward questions. One major area is religious beliefs – team leaders especially should be mindful and respectful of ways in which religious practices may impact work-related situations. Steer clear of scheduling activities at times when team members are likely to have other commitments. This will convey the message that they are an essential and valuable part of the team.

It will also be incredibly rewarding – not to mention interesting – to brush up on the basics of workplace etiquette specific to the countries your colleagues have come from. What are the connotations of punctuality? What are people’s ideas about personal space? How important is hierarchy, and what level of formality in professional interactions might they be accustomed to? This will make sure that you’re able to…

Go beyond the “golden rule”

The “golden rule” looks reasonable enough on paper: treat others like you would like to be treated. However, colleagues from other countries may have a different approach to issues ranging from negotiation styles to showing emotion. This may colour their expectations and responses in various professional scenarios. While intercultural communication is a two-way process, do try to meet them halfway: learn about how they might want to be treated in a professional setting, and be mindful of this.

Adapt to non-native speakers, if and when necessary

BBC Capital has courted some controversy by arguing in an article that native English speakers may in fact be the world’s worst communicators (yikes). This despite, or perhaps because of the fact, that English has become the lingua franca of the multicultural workplace. “A lot of native speakers (…) feel they don’t have to spend time learning another language”, says the communications trainer arguing the view. “But often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and understanding each other, and then suddenly the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them”. According to the article, Anglophones can be tempted to “talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture – as well as baffling abbreviations, such as ‘OOO’, instead of simply saying that they will be out of the office”. The advice given is to “talk more purposefully and carefully”, and adapt to the audience’s expectations – you don’t want to alienate your team by going to the other extreme, and coming across as patronising!

As in other situations, it pays to…

Be proactive

To make sure you don’t get off on the wrong foot, try to be mindful of your colleague’s reactions – and if in doubt, it’s better to ask respectfully than to assume. Intercultural communication can feel like going on a journey – and with a little effort, you can broaden your horizons and learn about the world without stepping out of the office.

Joanna Kozlowska

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