In a previous article we explored the role cross-cultural fluency can play in successful efforts with your international partners. Whether you’re new at working on cross-cultural teams or are a seasoned veteran in the multi-cultural professional environment, there’s always more to learn.  If you’d like to enhance your cultural intelligence, here are a few approaches to do it.

Assess Where You Are

The first step is some quick and honest self-reflection.  How ready are you to interact with a person of another culture? How about groups of people from multiple and often diverse cultures? How comfortable are you being the only “foreigner” in the room? How much homework have done about the specific culture(s) of your new colleagues?  Now here’s the tough one:  how willing you are to acknowledge the boundaries of your own cultural perspective? Hmmm. Our cultural framework is a product of our experiences, as is the system of values and norms in which we’ve lived, worked and conducted our daily and lifelong communication encounters. Your willingness to view exchanges through the lens of others can be pivotal to building cross-cultural fluency.

Let Go of Your Cultural Biases 

No judgment: it’s only natural to view activities or encounters through our own cultural lens.  But when it leads us to believe that the ideas expressed by those of the same culture are inherently the best ones, that’s a problem.  Ideas presented to multi-cultural teams should be evaluated on their merit, not the medium in which they were presented, and not weighted by the cultural identity of the speaker. The speakers of the dominant culture can often re-track dialogue in ways that make sense or are acceptable to them.  But the dialogue will be more productive if all cultural perspectives are acknowledged.  And proposals made by the dominant culture will earn more merit if a healthy dose of critical, objective analysis of them is encouraged, without regard to who brought them forward.

Are You Speaking English?

You’ve likely heard it said that English is the lingua franca in many international exchanges. Yet English speakers are often considered the least effective communicators.  Communicating in one’s native tongue can create confidence about not just the messaging, but also the thought process.  It’s easy to forget that speaking English does not equal a similar cultural perspective. In this linguistic comfort zone, the English speaker can miss cultural cues or fail to make adaptations that would ensure shared meaning is achieved. It could be argued that this phenomenon runs salient across any dialogue – regardless of the dominant language, and that this bias is more often ascribed to native English speakers. True enough – and even more reason for the person speaking English, or whatever dominant language is, to hone his cultural antennae.

Do Some Research

You likely spend time and brain cells preparing for meetings you facilitate.  You research your topic, match your approach with your desired outcomes, and perhaps consider how to build relationships to achieve longer-term goals.  Do you devote the same level of effort preparing to engage with your new international colleagues?  Learning the essential elements of a culture, its norms, and communication behaviors could advance or impede your success.  This investment can result in positive first impressions, which could earn you the benefit of the doubt when discussions don’t progress as you’d planned.

Mistakes, Misfires, and Other Embarrassments

Communication misfires will happen. Let’s first discuss how not to make things more confusing.  First, mind your utterances and gestures when you’re stumped.  Mind your what, now? When communicating with a fellow English speaker whose message you don’t understand, you might utter one of the following:  “What?” “Huh?” “Excuse me?” “I didn’t catch that,” “you lost me,” or the millennial’s favorite, “You said what now?” You might also involuntary throw a puzzled look askance to your same-language colleague, lower your eyebrows down in concentration, or toss your arms out in a “help me out because I don’t get it” gesture. These behaviors will not always resonate with a person of another culture in the way you had hoped.  The short word bursts can cause more confusion and the behaviors can be translated to a lack of trust, disapproval, or frustration. None of these conditions will make dialogue flow more freely.

Get Back On Track

If you’re the one who isn’t getting it, the best approach is to get clarification from the speaker. Avoid the vague, “I don’t understand” and instead focus on the specific phrase where you lost track.  A proven tool is reflecting, such as “I heard you say… but I didn’t understand. Can you explain that in more detail?” After you’ve heard it, try another reflection to confirm your understanding, but avoid the condescending “so I believe what you meant was…” Another approach is to ask the speaker if he minds you asking a mutual colleague who’s knowledgeable about the topic to help out as a facilitator. If you’re the one who’s misunderstood, try drawing on shared meanings that have already been achieved in the dialogue, and return back to a positive or successful point in the conversation.  Then progress with your message again through the lens of your listener.  If that fails, again consider asking for that mutual colleague to facilitate. We don’t need to cover why restating your message verbatim more loudly and slowly is a fail – just, no.   Also, keeping facial expressions and body language open and positive will convey your intent not to let a small messaging jam-up derail you – or your commitment to the dialogue.

Any combination of these approaches can help you achieve communication with your international partners.  But if you get in the room and forget all you read here, remember that you will rarely go wrong a little observation, humility, and courtesy. Best of luck in your next cross-cultural encounter!

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Melissa Jordan is an Executive Writer at a US Government agency. With more than 20 years in professional communication and over 16 years of experience working in cross-cultural environments, her most valuable lessons have been learned by trial and error.