5 cross-cultural communication disasters and how to avoid them

Even the best-intentioned words can be lost in translation when communicating across different cultures. Here are some common cross-cultural communication disasters – and some ways around them.

1. At a meeting, you’ve asked your multicultural team to brainstorm a controversial topic. Some members come forward immediately with ideas but others remain quiet and look uncomfortable.

Different cultures have different approaches to speaking up at meetings. Americans are inclined to shoot from the hip. Scandinavians are more reticent; they prefer to think before speaking. Japanese team members are not accustomed to voicing anything controversial; they will usually only speak in turn after their superior has made a statement. Saving face is more important than speaking up.

You can remedy this cross-cultural communication disasters by applying some boundaries. For example, going around the table taking turns to speak, so every individual has a chance. You could give everybody ten minutes to think about their answer and then give each one two minutes to present their idea. If someone is visibly unhappy, try to understand why. Is the topic personal to them? Do they disagree strongly with what a more forceful person has said but are afraid to speak up?

2. You’ve arrived in Tokyo and only have one meeting to thrash out a deal with a new client. When you suggest getting down to business, they appear stony-faced and hostile.

In Japan, business is relationship-based. The hierarchy is strict and individuals strive for group harmony and cooperation within that group. You need to take time to establish a rapport, both in the office and socially, before trying to strike any deal. Your Japanese counterpart will want to get to know you, to place you in context and to learn enough about you to interpret your reactions. For an initial visit, allow time for several meetings, informal and formal, and try to get to know your new contact outside the office as well by socializing, for example, going for drinks after work.

3. The discussion in a multicultural meeting has become animated. Some people are shouting while others look mortified. Instead of constructive debate, you feel a complete cross-cultural communication disaster looming.

Conflict is viewed in different ways around the world. Latin and Brazilian cultures, and to an extent, Middle Eastern, are comfortable with expressive body language and raised voices. Other, more reserved cultures like Scandinavians or Germans may feel intimidated or annoyed by this. Asians tend to convey disapproval by shutting down – they will display minimal non-verbal signs and fall silent.

Avoid similar cross-cultural communication disasters by inviting individuals to state, calmly, the pros and cons of the point they are trying to make. Ensure that everybody is invited to speak, not just those with the loudest voices. If you are really concerned, speak individually to the quieter members of the group after the meeting, in case they want to voice an opinion without losing face in public. Alternatively, invite people to make their point in writing. If you feel that the silent people were genuinely upset by the ‘argument’, or have an issue with one of the other group members, try to resolve the situation privately to allow all parties to save face.

For your part, learn that raised voices does not necessarily mean conflict and silence does not mean that the person lacks an opinion, or is in agreement.

4. You have asked an Indian supplier if they will be able to meet an important deadline. They say ‘Yes, no problem’ but then miss the deadline.

India is a culture where saving face is important. Saying ‘no’ is undesirable as it may cause the other party to lose face. Saying ‘yes’ maintains harmony, even if you are not able to carry through the promise. You will need to work on getting a realistic answer from your Indian contacts.  Don’t ask open-ended questions with a yes/no answer. Once they have given you an answer, check carefully that they have understood what you want. Work with your contact to talk through the steps leading up to the deadline, identifying milestones along the way. Try to get them to buy into the importance of the deadline. All this needs to be achieved without micro-managing or causing anybody to lose face.

5. A team project has not gone well and you have gathered your multicultural group to give and receive feedback. Some members appear to have nothing to say.

Members of more individualist cultures like the USA are generally comfortable receiving praise or criticism in front of their peers. But people from more collectivist cultures view feedback differently. Singling out an individual either for praise or criticism could cause them, and their colleagues, to lose face. Asians, for example, are more comfortable with feedback given in private and would never criticize a superior as they have been culturally conditioned to respect hierarchy.

Different cultures will voice their feedback in varying ways, too. Germans and Dutch can seem very direct, even to a British person. People from Indian and Arab cultures may make their point in indirect way, making their real meaning difficult to understand.

A way to solve this dilemma is to make feedback sessions non-threatening. Address issues to the whole group, rather than an individual. Take responsibility for what went wrong by saying ‘What could we have done better?’. If there is a genuine problem with one team member’s performance, address this on a one-to-one basis.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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