Intercultural communication skills to help you work with anyone

As humans, we’re naturally hardwired to bond with like-minded people. But workplaces are rarely a monolith — and, as many businesses embrace the benefits of a remote workforce, teams are becoming ever-more diverse.

This is a good thing: according to a recent study, diverse companies produce around 19% more revenue, which is why it’s crucial you find common ground with your international peers, especially when their customs and business practices seem different from your own.

So, whether you’re meeting clients abroad or are working as part of a global remote team, understanding how to effectively communicate across cultures is a great professional skill to have. It’s also one that’s becoming increasingly important in today’s multicultural work environment.

What is intercultural communication — and why is it important?

Simply put, it’s the ability to be able to talk to — and understand — people with different cultural and social backgrounds to that of your own. These differences could manifest in a number of ways, including facial expressions, thought patterns, customs, touch, and tone.

For example, in America and the UK, a handshake is the traditional way to greet a stranger. In France, it’s between one and five kisses on the cheek (called a ‘bisous’), and in Japan, it’s a bow. In Scandinavia, people are verbally more direct, which can seem blunt to British people, who are extremely polite and often beat around the bush. Americans are generally chatty and use small talk to build relationships. Whereas it’s considered the height of rudeness to ask an Arabic man questions about his wife or female members of his family.

Having a good knowledge of these differences is important for the same reason communication, in general, is important: the easier it is to understand each other, the better collaboration is between groups. And the more you collaborate, the more productive teams can be.

Not only that, but understanding and adapting to different cultures will help you overcome barriers to communication and minimize your chances of causing (or taking) offense — or suffering a dreaded communication breakdown. It also helps foster empathy — so that if someone says or does something that’s unusual for your culture, you can be more forgiving.

Intercultural communication checklist

It’s important to know how culture impacts the different aspects of communication. Here’s a checklist to get you started:

  • Make sure you have some knowledge of the culture, history, and way of living. This could include learning the appropriate way to greet someone, dining etiquette, and the country’s relationship with other nations.
  • Understand the communication styles of different countries. For example, if you’re speaking to a British person, failing to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ could cause offense.
  • Learn about the gender and social dynamics. For example, in much of Europe and Asia, equal numbers of men and women work — whereas in Saudi Arabia, the number of female workers is much lower (although steadily growing).
  • Have an awareness of your own cultural values and beliefs, and be as flexible as possible. Remember that what may seem rude to you was probably not intended that way.
  • Be aware of any cultural stereotypes you may hold. Keep an open mind, and treat each person as an individual.

How to show extra cultural awareness

There are additional things you can do that will impress the person you’re talking to and show them you’re culturally aware.

  • People love it when you show you’ve made an effort — so learn a few words in your colleague or client’s local language and they’ll be all the more impressed. This is especially important if you’re travelling to their country for a business trip.
  • Speak to locals, or people you know who have a good understanding of the culture. They’ll be able to give you insider tips on things like etiquette and values. If you don’t know anyone who fits the bill, just google your country/culture name, plus ‘etiquette’ or ‘social traits’.
  • Apologize immediately if you say the wrong thing or do something that offends the person you’re talking to.
  • Be quick to accept apologies in return — and do your best to minimize any embarrassment felt by the person you’re talking to. This could include reassuring them it’s not a problem, laughing the mistake off or moving on to another topic.

How to master cross-cultural collaboration

It can be daunting dealing with one person whose cultural background is different from that of your own. But when that person becomes a group, it can be downright chaotic. Here are some tips to help you make sure your meeting, presentation, or luncheon goes off without a hitch.

  • Check up on your understanding by repeating information, asking for clarification, and double-checking the other people understand what you mean. Practice active listening, which both increases your chances of comprehension and shows them you understand what they’re saying.
  • Take the extra time to clarify meeting schedules so things don’t become a disorganized free-for-all. And when you’re done, run around the room to make sure everyone understands the goals and what’s expected of them.
  • Remember to take cultural eating habits into account. Brits and Americans are happy to grab a snack at their desk, but for a French person, lunch is an hour-plus long sit-down affair. Muslims don’t eat pork, Jewish people don’t eat pork or shellfish — while Hindus generally avoid meat, and especially beef. To be safe, always offer veggie, vegan and gluten-free options.
  • Research customs before a business trip. You may well be invited to a sauna in Finland, a karaoke bar in Japan, or a restaurant in China before negotiating a business deal, and it’s potentially rude to decline such an invitation could be seen as rude. Remember, these aren’t just social opportunities — they’re an important part of the process.

Final thoughts

Teamwork is better when expectations are clearly defined and differences are taken into account. Once you’ve identified these, find common ground and decide how you want to work together.

As with everything in the workplace, things are more productive with good communication. If possible, get in as much face-to-face time as possible with your international colleagues before switching over to email or phone — and make a concerted effort to include everyone in every decision-making process.

To keep things running smoothly, take advantage of technology as much as possible. Even old friends have misunderstandings when talking over email, which is why it’s important to blend mediums: if you’re talking to an international colleague via email, ask to follow up via Skype or phone. If you’re chatting with someone on your office chat app, invite them into a casual chat group. They’ll not only feel more included — you’ll also be giving them the opportunity to learn a little more about you and your culture in return.