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ACE Blogs: 4 tricks to improve cross-cultural communication

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I still remember the day I received a phone call from a Hampshire hotel Ternheuzen regarding an unimportant marketing task. I must have been about 20 years old, doing my internship at Hampshire Hotel Delft Centre. As soon as I closed the phone, I noticed the surprised look of the marketing manager:

“Why did you talk to him like that?”

I assumed she was upset but I couldn’t figure why. I had spoken very professionally, straight to the point, and with a deep voice.

“What do you mean?”

She went on to explain how, in Dutch culture, people always try to sound pleasant on the phone, even if it’s about a serious business matter. They also make small talk before talking business.

It was my turn to feel surprised. In Greece, where I’d lived my whole life, people tend to adopt a “work attitude” during working hours. This was obviously a matter of miscommunication, and I was going to get into similar situations a lot more over the next few years.

Fast forward to today, and I operate a successful marketing agency with multiple international clients, some of which happen to be Dutch. To get there, I had to build my cross-cultural communication skills, and I firmly believe that everyone should do the same.

Whether it is about pitching a potential investor, talking to partners, or instructing your team, cross-cultural communication helps you get your message across in a better way. In this article, I’d like to share some of the most important communication tricks I’ve learned over the years and show you how to apply them in real life.

Trick #1 – Practice culture mirroring

When conducting business with people from another culture, you need to imagine how you come across in their perception. The ability to communicate effectively depends on many factors.

  • The spoken language
  • Communication style differences
  • Body language and tonality differences
  • Predetermined opinions on the topic of discussion

To avoid getting stuck in the details and making mistakes, try to mentally step into the other person’s shoes. If you were that person, what would you expect or like to hear? What would you like the outcome to be?

Thinking like the person you are talking to is helpful in any type of business conversation, regardless of the culture and profession. In order to maximize the effectiveness of your communication, you will have to prepare before a conversation starts.

Trick #2 – Build good rapport first

When meeting new people, try to make a positive first impression. Building good rapport helps you establish stronger relationships while minimizing uncomfortable situations. The way I do this is by “tuning in” the present moment and observing the communication “knacks” of the other party.

For example, I noticed that the Dutch culture understands a message based on the tone of voice and the words that are used. Naturally, to build a positive rapport I had to adjust my communication and body language. This helps me create a comfort zone and “break the ice” faster.

The main lesson here can be summarized as follows:

  • When you have a positive rapport with someone and an uncomfortable situation occurs, the other person will most likely blame external circumstances.
  • If you have a negative or neutral rapport with someone, he/she will be more inclined to blame you.

Trick #3 – Adhere to time expectations

The perception of time is also culture-dependent. This can be a real challenge when it comes to business planning or important deadlines.

Back in my first year of university, we used to schedule project meetings at 9:00 AM sharp. When my Italian roommate and I arrived 15 minutes late, our German and Dutch classmates were irritated. According to them, we were not punctual. According to us, there was no reason to stress.

The flexible relationship with time makes some cultures less punctual. For Germanic cultures, as I found out later, being late is a sign of disrespect.

To solve this issue we had to put our ego aside and communicate openly about the issue at hand. Being a multicultural team, we had to establish unspoken rules that everyone should abide with – we referred to it as our project group’s subculture. This adjustment had a positive effect on our work relationship and I am still using it whenever I choose to outsource work-related tasks overseas.

Trick #4 – Adjust your email format

In today’s global business environment, email is seen as the best medium of business communication and is used just as much for our personal relationships. While this is a great way to communicate fast and efficiently, it has many hidden dangers:

  • Once an email is sent, it can’t be undone. If you offend someone through email, they can read the message multiple times and usually feel worse after each consecutive reading.
  • Email evidence is often a trigger for lawsuits concerning cultural diversity and regulatory violations.

As such you should treat each and every email with utmost care. You want to ensure that your message will not lead to misunderstandings. Here are a few adjustments to help you out:
Avoid all humorous remarks related to gender, race, or cultural predispositions.
Avoid writing in all caps, as it is considered yelling for many people.
Try to limit bold or colored text and unnecessary punctuation marks.
Don’t add a “high priority” label to an email unless the email is really important.

A practice I tend to follow involves modeling the email format of the sender. If they like to use emojis in their email, I will feel more comfortable doing the same. If they reach out formally, I’ll make sure to reply in the same way. This is one of the safest ways to avoid offending the person you are communicating with.

Wrapping up

In a world where global connectedness impacts all areas of life, cross-cultural communication is more important than ever.

After reading the tricks above, you should know what it takes to improve cross-cultural communication.

Closing, make sure to remember the importance of awareness, observation, and behavioral adjustment. Doing so will help you avoid the mistakes so often experienced in international business relationships.

Author profile

Dimitris Tsapis is the content manager of Coara, a startup enthusiast and an ACE ally.

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