Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication

Note to Readers

Periodically I publish a blog that we value the most and has had the best responses. This was published two years ago.

We all live and do business in an increasingly global environment. One of the authors has been a citizen of three countries, the other author has lived in two, and they now live part of their year in a country new to both of them, Mexico. These days, business people working for global companies are likely interacting with individuals from several different cultures most every day. Consequently, we need guidelines for communicating productively as well as building good cross-cultural relationships.

Based on our work and life experience as well as a review of the literature on cross-cultural communication, we have identified “ten basics of cross-cultural communication” that we hope will help you become a more effective communicator.

1. We are always students, learning from each other.

In Mexico, we recognize that cultural fluency remains a distant aspiration. Just when we think we’ve grasped some aspect of the culture, we are humbled and surprised by our ignorance. After three years of living in Mexico and taking Spanish classes, we thought our simple conversational Spanish was pretty good; then, we met with our new Spanish tutor who spent her first hour with us correcting our grammar. We left class wondering how Mexicans had managed to understand anything we said!

Mantra: Always learning but never there.

2. Just because we interact a lot with other cultures does not make us culturally fluent.

It is easy to assume that because we are working across cultures all the time, our cross-cultural communication skills are continually improving. That assumption is probably wrong. To improve, we need to recognize the areas where cross-cultural communication typically breaks down and seek to understand why as well as learn how to interpret other cultures’ different communication styles. For example, cultures can differ dramatically in how they reject a proposal or say “no.” Some cultures avoid using the word “No” altogether. Asking members of another culture how negotiations are conducted and resolved are key to becoming a culturally fluent communicator and achieving the best results.

Mantra: Repeated exposure to other cultures is not tantamount to improving cultural fluency; ask questions, seek feedback.

3. When encountering another culture, at times, we may feel confused, unmoored, and anxious.

Sometimes we feel in a perpetual state of confusion when we live and work in another culture, in part, because our shared cultural reference points or anchors are gone. We have moved out of our comfort zone. But there’s an upside: a new culture can open us up to new aspects of ourselves and teach us skills we would never have learned had we stayed in the comfort of our own culture.

For these authors, learning how the Mexican culture grieves, remembers, and honors their dead, particularly during “The Day of the Dead” ceremonies, was an epiphany: we recognized the universal need to express loss, to remember, and to openly include death as part of the life cycle. Participating also triggered our unexpressed needs in that regard and we realized how these needs too often go unexpressed in our US culture.

Mantra: Don’t be afraid of entering uncharted territory: it can open doors to your deeper self.

4. We need to understand our own cultural lens.

Living in one culture all the time, such as the United States, does not allow us to see ourselves clearly; namely, to understand what causes us, as Americans, to think and behave the way we do. Seeing the U.S. through the eyes of other cultures raises our awareness of our own cultural quirks and perspectives. Did you know that the  word that best captures the essence of the U.S. culture is adolescence? Read the book by French author, Clotaire Rapaille, “The Culture Code”, and you will see why.

Mantra: Welcome the opportunity to see yourself through the eyes of others.

5. Directly experience the culture –it’s always the best way to learn.

In the global arena of travel, visitors in foreign cultures often divide themselves into two categories: tourists and travelers.

Travelers seek to learn about their new culture; they like to compare cultures and celebrate the differences they observe; they experience a new culture directly, for example, by participating with native people in their everyday activities such as cooking, music, dance, song, and theatre.

At the other extreme there are tourists who travel with members of their own cultural group. They can be seen in local markets gawking, comparing everything to the way things are done back home and finding the culture wanting. They maintain a competitive stance with the unfamiliar culture and patronize the people.

One sure way to a rewarding direct experience of a new culture is to begin to learn their language. Using the culture’s language reveals hidden aspects of the culture and literally opens doors. You don’t really have to be any good at the language—it is the fact you have made the effort that people so appreciate.

Mantra: Walk a mile in the shoes of the other.

6. Strive to make generalizations but avoid stereotypes.

We all need to make generalizations. It is the way our mind organizes the plethora of information we receive every day into categories that are meaningful. However, stereotyping is another thing altogether.

Stereotyping aspects of a culture oversimplifies and grossly misrepresents that culture’s inherent richness and diversity, resulting in cultural blindness in the eyes of the perceiver. It can also lead to feelings of separation and, worse, hostility.

Where we live right now in central Mexico, Mexicans and Americans who work together on projects mutually agree on a starting time, then sometimes jokingly ask each other: “Do you mean Mexican time or U.S. time?” If a Mexican says about the start time, “Ojala” or “God willing”, then we know that his intention is to begin at a designated time, but the likelihood that he actually begins at that time is not very high. Based on our earlier experiences with this expression, we were able to generalize about projected start times when others would say “Ojala”.

Sometimes  Americans stereotype or negatively judge Mexicans as unreliable in regard to time when they are not punctual. In so doing, Americans reveal their ignorance of the fact that Mexicans have a totally different orientation to time and an implicit understanding with each other when it comes to the notion of time and their mutual commitments.

Mantra: Generalizations are necessary and helpful; stereotypes oversimplify and misrepresent.

 7. At times, we find bigger differences within a culture than across cultures.

Think for a moment about the cultural differences between New York City and Los Angeles or even between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities separated by a mere 450 miles. While NYC leans toward a direct, “in your face” interactive style, the approach in LA can be much more “soft” in tone and indirect.

The U.S. is distinguished by many peoples from all over the world as well as by many regional cultures (e.g., New Orleans, Dallas, Chicago, Boston). These regions are characterized by differences in clothes, food, speech accents, music preferences and behavioral style (e.g. open/reserved), to name a few. Consequently, to say “all US people are….” is as absurd as making the same attribution to other countries and/or cultures.

Mantra: Know yourself. Then, seek to understand, and celebrate differences everywhere.

8. Similarities between cultures are often greater than differences.

Recall the lyrics of the song by Sting “….the Russians love their children too.” As human beings, we all share common joys and sorrows and aspirations for those we care about and ourselves as well as universal values. Probably the best example of our common values is the moral aspiration shared by all major world religions, to try to“Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Mantra: Recognize and celebrate the common ground between different cultures.

 9. Different cultures are always in flux as they interact with each other.

One core characteristic of culture, as well as a culture’s language, is that it is never static but, rather, constantly changing. In the age of globalization, cultures are more permeable as global communication and travel penetrate even the most isolated areas. This dynamic process has also accelerated change within cultures.

One of the authors recalls once commenting to a 30-something Japanese woman that it must be difficult for her to express her individuality in a culture dominated by collective ideals. She quickly corrected the author, providing numerous examples where she and her peers expressed their individuality.

Mantra: Cultural norms don’t necessarily apply to individuals within that culture.

10. No one culture is the center of the universe no matter who draws the map.

The danger of thinking otherwise is that one can move towards ethnocentricity; that is, the view that one’s own culture is superior to other cultures. Once we go that route, we become blind to what other cultures can teach us and we run the risk of dividing and separating ourselves from one another. Just because our particular culture is beloved and familiar does not make it superior to another.

Mantra: Seek the wisdom that other cultures have to offer; do not impose your cultural views upon others.

Because of the complexity of individual cultures, we will always be students when it comes to cross-cultural understanding. By making efforts to incorporate these ten “basics” in our interactions at work and in our everyday life, we can go a long way to improving the quality of our interactions and long-term relationships.

We have found that cultures are very open and accepting of individual blunders and missteps. If we enter a new culture without judgment, an open heart, and a willingness to learn, the culture will be more open to accepting and trusting us as business partners or neighbors.

This blog was written with Kristine MacKain, Ph.D.

Kris works as a consultant with Cedric in their leadership development partnership; she also was a coach with Aon Consulting. Kris was an assistant research professor at Cornell University Medical College in the Department of Psychiatry in New York City and is a retired educator.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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4 Responses to Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication

  1. Michele Rapp says:

    Great article Chris and Cedric! I was just at the Boston French Film Festival with my friend who teaches French and she was saying similar things about the value of becoming fluent in another language. Michele

  2. Pingback: Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication | Englis...

  3. Cross cultural communication needs to be started with knowing the basics,understanding cultures, trying to learn much about a particular culture, seeking wisdom of what cultures have to offer. Do not impose your cultural views upon others. Understanding the common ground between different cultures and feeling free to learn new cultures can help you solve the problem of cross cultural dilemma.

    • cedricj says:

      Thanks for this wonderful summary. You obviously have thought about this topic in depth for years and I look forward to following what you have to say, Regards, Cedric

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