by Sarah K. White

How to fix cross-cultural communication issues

Apr 27, 2016
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

If your company operates on a global scale, you might find yourself running into problems with colleagues on other continents. If thatu2019s the case, itu2019s time to and reevaluate how your company handles cross-cultural communication.

MIT doesn’t cater to only full-time students — the university has also established career development programs through the MIT Professional Education department to empower business leaders and their employees. In a new course titled “Culture Matters: Communicating Effectively in a Global Workplace,” that is set to run from June 13 to June 15, Bhaskar Pant and Jane Dunphy will lead participants in a two-day course that addresses issues that can arise from cross-cultural communication at work. The course is piloted by Pant and his colleague, Dunphy, who hails from Canada, where she has experienced the same communication problems from another perspective.

Pant noticed the negative effects of cultural differences in the workplace while working in India around the time of the big Y2K scare – a period that found more businesses hiring workers from India. Pant quickly saw these U.S. employers and their employees from India found it difficult to effectively communicate. And these misinterpretations of one another’s intentions only served to cause tension and issues that could have easily been resolved by a bit of cultural understanding. As a result, Pant went on to create a professional development company to address these types of issues, and has since spent years working in the tech industry where he’s seen this cross-cultural communication issue only increase as technology enables businesses to grow globally.

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Minor differences cause big challenges

Pant wants businesses to understand that cross-cultural communication is something that should be talked about and considered regularly. But, he says, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. “In 15 years things have only gotten that much more urgent. If it was something I noticed [in the past], it’s that much more needed now. There’s been an explosion in the ability to communicate with people across borders with such great ease.”

Pant points out that there are far more global teams in the tech industry now than there were 10 or 15 years ago – you might even have coworkers on your team who work on completely different continents. And that means cross-cultural communication is an everyday occurrence for most workers, whether it’s in during a conference call, over an email exchange, or even during an in-person meeting at a diverse company. However, no matter the setting, people need to understand how to handle these interactions.

When you’re working with colleagues or clients in another country on a regular basis, there are problems that can crop up from a general misunderstanding of each other’s cultures. Pant often finds that when these miscommunications arise, people may attribute it to someone being lazy, unresponsive or evasive, when really it boils down to simple cultural differences that can be addressed on both ends. This is referred to as “ethnocentrism,” where culturally, we often only view others from our own perspective, without understanding that miscommunications might be as simple as a cultural difference.

And ethnocentrism isn’t only a threat to the communication in a workplace, it also affects the overall productivity and efficiency of a company. Says Pant, “it says that you’re coming from your personal reference point and you’re not showing any kind of empathy or understanding of where the other person may be coming from.” Cultural sensitivity can go along way at work, and can ultimately eliminate a number of common issues that businesses face, which will only increase productivity and efficiency.

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Miscommunication can be as simple as email or deadlines

One example of poor cross-cultural communication that Pant commonly identifies is email. He finds that in the U.S., we view email as a more casual form of communication – you might send over five emails back and forth before you complete a conversation or answer the right questions. But oftentimes, workers who are trying to get in touch with a coworker in another country might find that they aren’t as responsive as they’d like, and then chalk it up to that person being inconsiderate or flighty.

But Pant points out that the reason someone might not be responding to your email the way you’d expect them to be might boil down to the fact that they come from a consensus-driven culture, and perhaps they need to double check with others on their team before they send a response. Or it could be as simple a cultural view on email – they might not use email as casually as Americans do, so they want to ensure they have all the right answers to give a complete response to all of your questions in one email, rather than multiple.

In America, we’re far more likely to fire off a quick response to say we’re working on it, to answer just part of their question and follow up later, or even just acknowledge we received the email. So, while a slow response might seem rude in America, to someone in another culture, sending a quick, thoughtless response will seem just as rude.

Another example of poor cross-cultural communication can come from project deadlines, says Pant. You might have a deadline set up, and assume that someone isn’t meeting your deadline out of a lack of consideration for you or their job. But it could mean that the person you’re working with comes from a culture where they work as a full team, and respond as a team, rather than an individual.

It could be that you assume the person you’re working with is higher ranked in the company, but their office might not have the same hierarchy as your American office, so they might be waiting on someone above them to respond. And the problem isn’t necessarily these interactions, it’s when people jump to assumptions based off their own experiences – instead of addressing the underlying cultural differences, they chalk it up to negative behavior.

“These are every day occurrences where people would say, ‘Oh they’re not really being responsible, they’re not interested, or they’re being rude.’ You could say all those things, and none of them may be true. And that’s what catches people by surprise,” says Pant. “I could say all these things to you and from my point of view everything I’ve said is correct. But people don’t say ‘how might they be feeling in a different culture about what I’m asking and why they’re not responding’.”

Approach from the get go

For businesses that are trying to diversify, Pant recommends approaching cross-cultural communication right from the start. It’s much easier to implement a program from the start to addresses cultural barriers at work than to implement one later after issues have already come up. It sounds simple enough, but Pant says the biggest issue is that businesses are – for the most part – completely unaware of this issue. Rather than fix the underlying problems, they continue to throw their hands up in exasperation at their foreign colleagues. But all that time spent wondering why their colleagues aren’t responding the way they’d expect them to becomes wasted energy and time that could be spent improving the business.

Pant says that this type of persistent ethnocentrism can cause minor issues to blow up into bigger ones, when it could be solved by a simple understanding of one another’s cultures. In the end, every miscommunication that takes time from workers’ days adds up and that can affect the bottom line of the business. If missing deadlines or not communicating correctly causes issues in your department or company, Pant essentially says you can either go around experiencing the same problems over and over again, or you can get right to the root of the problem to minimize any future problems and also improve relationships with foreign clients and coworkers. And if your business won’t get on board with cultural training, at the very least, when you experience a cross-cultural miscommunication, instead of jumping to conclusions, take a step back and consider one another’s perspectives.

While most businesses might be happy to implement more cross-cultural training, according to Pant, some businesses are naïve to the problem. “People are really not tuned to the fact that they’re running into issues that have nothing to do with anything other than cultural differences, and yet they seem to be oblivious to it a lot of the time and blame other things which may be secondary or maybe even nonexistent.”