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3 problems with cross-cultural communications and how to fix them

3 problems with cross-cultural communications and how to fix them

cross-cultural communicationsWhy isn’t your international business thriving?

Why are you still running into problems with your international counterparts telling you “yes” one day and then not following through the next?

After working with clients in South East Asia since the 1990’s, living in Malaysia with my family for almost a year, conducting research, and coaching senior leaders in some of the area’s largest organizations, I’ve gained insight into the conundrum facing so many international teams: problems with cross-cultural communication.

I’ve explored both the communication psyche of senior level executives and the perspectives of multiple organizational levels of employees. 

Doing so, I’ve discovered the root causes of many of these problems as well as a simple solution.  

The Problem

Many issues with cross-cultural communications arise from breakdowns in verbal and body language. Consider:

  • A manager from India who is speaking to a colleague from the United States may come across as condescending and arrogant without knowing he is conveying that attitude. The Indian feels he is simply showing confidence; to his American colleague, he is being offensive. The American doesn’t respect the manager. How likely is it that the two can form a productive working relationship?
  • A man from Singapore meets with a woman from the United States, and they discuss research. To him, research means that if three people agree on a topic, it’s a fact. To the female, research means paying a firm $50,000 to call and poll people for a month. They leave their meeting in agreement that they will research a new product and then go to market with it.  However, they never discuss the meaning of the term research. What do you think will happen when they meet again at the end of the month for a progress check?
  • A manager from Germany delegates a critical job to an Asian subordinate. Upon the due date, the work is not done.

“Where is the work?” asks the manager.

“It’s on my desk,” replies the subordinate.

“Is it done?” queries the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. 

“Can I have it?” asks the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. 

“So where is it?”

“On my desk.”

“So why is it on your desk?”

“Because I’m still working on it,” replies the subordinate.

“But you said it was done!” exclaims the manager.

“Yes.” Replies the subordinate. At which point the manager became frustrated, associating the “yes” replies and the absence of work deception or incompetence. The reality here was the subordinate was fearful of having to share bad news with a source of authority.

How can the German manager foster an environment where the Asian subordinate is comfortable enough to transcend her upbringing about disappointing authority and being honest?

  • A woman from Malaysia meets with a man from England to design an event for their company. The man from England discusses the “take-aways” from the event, meaning the lessons people learn and retain. The woman from Malaysia believes “take-aways” are the hand-outs and gifts people take away from the event. Do you think the meeting is a productive one or simply causes confusion?

3 part fix for cross-cultural communications

The Fix

There’s a three-part fix for cross-cultural communication problems:

1. Paraphrase. Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding.

2. Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms; and it’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time upfront to define terms and meaning saves time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone uses terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that isn’t proof that both of you are on the same page.  Always double-check.

It’s true that communication problems can crop up in non-multicultural environments as well. Yet in multicultural environments, the chance of communication problems is significantly worse. However, if you are prepared, you can avoid costly communication breakdowns and strengthen productivity by using these three simple steps.

Pay attention to the fix, and you’ll thrive. Don’t use them, and you’re wasting valuable time.


Today’s guest post is from Ethan F. Becker, co-author of Mastering Communication at Work (McGraw-Hill) and President of The Speech Improvement Company.

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