While cultural misinterpretations can make for a good laugh amongst friends, the same mistake in a business setting can permanently damage your reputation with colleagues, employees… or clients.


As the world becomes “smaller”, the need for strong cross-cultural skills continues to increase at an alarming pace. Whether you work in your home country with people from other cultures or you live in a culture other than your own, doing business with people having alternative worldviews is always a challenge.Technological advances in transportation and communication may make logistics easier, but the challenge of cross-cultural communication remains constant. As you consider how to work with people different from yourself, consider some basic tips that you may find helpful:

1.    Understand, you can’t possibly understand…

Because we live within our own paradigms, we can never fully understand those outside of them… and vice versa. No matter how much, as global leaders we would like to think we understand, chances are we are just not equipped to comprehend the complexity and diversity that resides within our global organizations.  Where we can be effective is through active listening, understanding that there is more than one “best way”, and having the capacity to facilitate the blending of the best of all cultural elements to make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

2.    Just because everyone speaks English doesn’t mean you are speaking the same language.

Although English may be the “official” language of your company, how the words are interpreted by those you work with is far more important than the actual words said. Always avoid slang, irony, and double negatives that could cause confusion. Analogies and metaphors rarely translate – even amongst English speaking cultures. If you must use a metaphor, stick to nature – it’s the one thing we all experience and understand in a similar way.

3.    Surprises are not welcome in all cultures.

In many cultures, your customers or colleagues may want to know what to expect before you’ve even booked your flight – changing the game-plan at the last minute is just not acceptable on any level. When you are preparing for meetings or presentations outside your home environment, make sure you are well-prepared in advance, send a clear message indicating what your purpose is as well as an outline of what you intend to talk about. Allow enough time for any requested changes.

4.    Approach a language you don’t speak (or thoroughly understand) very carefully.

There is a joke about an English businessman who goes to Japan to speak and at the last minute decides to welcome the audience in Japanese. He sees both a men’s room and a ladies’ room in the back of the venue and asks his translator for pronunciation on the signs. He greets the audience, gives his speech, and sits down to unenthusiastic applause. When he asks what went wrong, the translator replies, “your speech was very interesting, but why did you greet the crowd with ‘good morning toilets and urinals’?” …Not so funny if it’s your business meeting!

 Always be aware that words do not translate equally. If you are not a native, or very experienced speaker, of the local language use a translator or request that communications take place in your first language.

5.    Don’t rush things.

In the western world things tend to move quickly, but even within this context things move at different paces. Make the effort to understand how others prefer to work and adapt your style accordingly where possible. We all know that things must get done – and on a timeline in most instances. However,  in many cultures, how things get done is equally (or more) important than when they get done.  Make a point of building relationships, not just encounters – show interest in others and take the time to get some knowledge of their culture and country before you open communications.

Obviously, every cross-cultural experience will be different. The approach you need to adopt for a specific culture can take some time to research, but it is well worth the effort if you are able to facilitate positive outcomes. Like everything in life – you get out of things exactly what you put into them!

Are you investing what you need to into your cross-cultural communications?

Please engage the discussion and let us know what your tips are for communicating across cultures. Please feel free to contact me at Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website at www.LuminosityGlobal.com. Check back soon for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.

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