6 lessons for verbal intercultural communication

It’s a simple fact that in cross-cultural situations, communication problems are intensified.  However, you can maintain productivity and avoid costly mistakes by:

Asking questions in the right way

  • Use a lot of open-ended questions to gain more information about the other person(s), e.g. their work and cultural context, how they are interpreting your message(s).
  • Avoid double questions, e.g. “Did you find the meeting interesting and useful?’ “Interesting” and “Useful” are different things.
  • Avoid negative questions, e.g. “Don’t you have anything to report?”  If the person answers “Yes” does that mean yes they do or yes they don’t?
  • Avoid confusing strings of questions, e.g. “Would you like a cup of chai? Or a coffee?  Perhaps you would prefer a glass of water or juice?”

Checking regularly for shared understanding

  • Keep the following question in mind: “How can I know what I’ve said until I know what you’ve heard?”
  • Periodically use standard tools for verifying that others are accurately interpreting what you are saying, e.g. having other paraphrase, summarize, or retell.

Choosing and delivering your words carefully

  • Find out what level of formality is expected when speaking to different people.
  • Define your key terms with precision.  Avoid vague, abstract terms that could have multiple meanings, e.g. “High quality” or “As soon as possible.”
  • Make sure you are careful to pronounce and articulate words carefully.  Use pauses and careful intonation.
  • Avoid slang words or phrases, e.g. “No brainer.”  What does that mean exactly?  Is it an insult?
  • Avoid idioms, e.g. “You pulling my leg?”  “It’s a piece of cake.”
  • Avoid acronyms unless you are absolutely sure the other person understands their meaning.
  • Be careful when using humor.  Many jokes, for example, don’t translate well and cause confusion, or worse, offence!
  • Remember that shouting rarely increases your chances of being more understood.

Flexing your style

  • Be alert for differences in communication style.  Some cultures rely heavily on words to communicate meaning explicitly while others communicate meaning implicitly by hinting, suggesting, or telling stories.  Understand what works for your audience and adapt.

Pacing yourself

  • Adjust your talking speed to make it comfortable for the listener.  This usually means talking more slowly which can feel awkward for you.
  • Also slow down so that you can think as well as speak (Listen, Think, and then Talk).
  • Avoid the temptation to speed things up by finishing the other person’s sentences or by filling silences; give the other person time to process what is being said (in their own language) and formulate and deliver a reply (in your language).
  • Let people express themselves without interruption; don’t rush them or a very costly mistake could be the result.

Paying close attention

  • Pay close attention even when understanding someone can be difficult, e.g. someone is talking too fast, or has an accent you find difficult to understand.  In each of these cases, politely ask the person to slow down, repeat what was said, or use a different channel, e.g. writing something down, or instant messaging instead of a telephone call.  Warning: Don’t pretend to understand.
  • Take more breaks; paying close attention can be exhausting.
  • Listen for meaning, not just words spoken.
  • Pay attention to paralanguage (how something is said) – tempo, tone, intonation, pauses, loudness and softness, high or low pitch.  Meanings can change dramatically when different words are emphasized or pauses are introduced in a sentence.

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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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