The Power of Cross-Cultural Communication
Life has never changed so fast and been so multicultural as in our globalised 21st century. Today it’s absolutely normal to move from country to country, to work in different international companies, and to have friends all over the world. At first glance, these are all good things, but why then is there so much research on the cultural and psychological problems of expats, on culture shock, on the issues of cultural misunderstanding, on the specifics of doing business in different counties? The answer is simple: cross-cultural communication is a very complex subject.
Cross-cultural communication deals with an understanding of how people from different cultural backgrounds communicate within their own culture and between cultures. At least some basic knowledge of cross-cultural communication has become vital both in business and interpersonal relations, and having this competence is the key to success in today’s world.
There are numerous ways of learning these strategic skills, from personal experience to theoretical studies. Still, our experience, however rich it may be, is hardly applicable in all possible situations, and besides, it’s usually subjective. As to theory, we all know that it means nothing without practice, and we don’t often have the opportunity to check all we have read, and to be prepared for all future scenarios. Perhaps the most effective solution is to attend short, intensive, specialised trainings which explain aspects of cultural differences logically and clearly.
You have probably heard — or even have experienced yourself — that doing business in Russia with Russians has its peculiarities. Many books have been written about this, but nevertheless, in real life, the books are often too generalized. To facilitate your work and interaction in this wonderful country, it is essential to consider your specific situation, your goals and objectives — this is where targeted training can be really useful.
Where can intercultural competence help you? Let’s have a look at just a few examples. Imagine that you have multi-national employees (or colleagues) — for instance, a Russian, a German, an American, an Indian and a Spaniard. You might wonder why their overall working efficiency isn’t as high as you expect it to be. But it’s only natural: due to their innate cultural characteristics, their behaviour will vary. Most likely, the German will perform better, having clear instructions and organising his work step by step, which is quite hard for the Russian who will prefer multitasking and improvisation, even probably sometimes working overtime to make a deadline; the American will need a definite goal set, will prefer individual projects to team work and will be great where more aggressive strategies are needed; something that is absolutely not suited for the Indian who takes things in a lighter way. The Spaniard will want a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the office valuing not punctuality but personal relations; and this may not be shared by the German. The list can be continued, but the reason for all those differences lies in ‘high-context’ (Russian, Indian, Spaniard) vs. ‘low-context’ (German, American) cultures and Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions indices — power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term vs. short-term orientation. In the described situation, intercultural competence and a few simple steps can help both the employers and employees create an optimal atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect, to rally the team and to enhance working efficiency — and thus, to improve the work of the company in general. National aspects of working culture are as important as global aspects!
Another common example is intercultural personal communication (collaboration, friendship, marriage, etc.). We know that it’s not so easy to establish ‘perfect’ understanding even with a person from your own culture (we all are unique), but when it comes to an intercultural partnership, we face many new and unimaginable problems. Needless to say, there are plenty of advantages in this kind of a relationship, but at the same time there is that painful downside when our expectations might fail. This happens not only due to the above-mentioned factors, but also because most people have a sort of inherent ethnocentrism. That is, we judge another culture from the perspective of our own — in other words, we expect a representative of another culture to behave, communicate, react, etc., in the way we would normally expect from a person of our own cultural background. Naturally, this seldom works. But if we know the cultural peculiarities of our partner (which, in general, are more or less typical for anyone of a particular culture — of course, taking into account his or her personal characteristics as well), we can also adjust our own behaviour to make our communication successful. It will result in fewer misunderstandings, quarrels, offences, and it will allow you to build a safe and stable relationship!
Quite apart from everything said above, intercultural competence is a great tool to anticipate, avoid and resolve possible conflict situations, be it in a business or in the personal sphere. No matter who you are, and what your professional occupation is, mastering cross-cultural communication is one of the most important skills for achieving high results in life today.
Oksana Danchevskaya, Ph.D in Cultural Studies, Associate Professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University,
Author of ‘English for Cross-Cultural and Professional Communication’