Tips for Overcoming Barriers with Communicating Internationally

By | March 15, 2012

Overcoming intercultural communication challenges is not just a philosophy of sensitivity to each other’s nuanced identities. Nor is it a topic reserved for managers, and other employees of multinational organizations, anyone interested in pursuing an international or intercultural career, or even people who travel a lot.
Any random two people, even two from the same country or even from the same family can have vastly different cultural identities that create challenges to effective communication and understanding between them. Developing intercultural competence, even among people we perceive as similar to us, is essential to understanding, being understood, and consciously deciding for ourselves how respectful we wish to be to the people we interact with.

Kwintissential.co.uk suggests 6 main tips for overcoming common barriers to cross-cultural communication. I’d like to quote and elaborate on them.

Step 1. Break Assumptions
“Everyone makes or has assumptions about others. Assumptions are beliefs rather than objective truth and are usually influenced by a number of subjective factors.”
Assumptions are only beliefs. The only facts we know about any individual are those we learn by interacting with or observing that individual. If you assume something about a person based only on your perceptions of a group you believe they are a member of, you are limiting your understanding and desire to understand another human being. People should ask themselves why they possess these beliefs and openly discuss them with others calmly, motivated by a desire to understand. Though it often seems like these assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices are based on a desire to feel we understand the world by accepting over-simplified explanations these assumptions give us.

Step 2. Empathize
“In order to come to appreciate and understand people from different cultures, empathy is vital. Through putting yourself in someone else’s shoes you come to see or appreciate their point of view.”
This is a hard one. It’s often difficult to empathize with other’s vital, identity defining experiences you have not experienced for yourself. But if we don’t empathize, we risk missed opportunities. According to an article on How to Improve Communication in an Intercultural Business World, “it’s important to understand that we all have ingrained cultural biases. We hire people who resemble us.” If we don’t attempt intercultural emphathy when we perceive difference, then we are only limiting ourselves .

Step 3. Involve
“Involving others in tasks or decision making empowers and builds strong relationships. Using intercultural diversity is in essence a more creative approach to problem solving as it incorporates different points of view.”

Ange Teo, founder of a Cross-Cultural Communications Solutions Provider, says, that employees assigned positions requiring intercultural competence “may display anxiety and discomfort and may have had little or rare opportunities to socialize with people of other cultures before. He will lose sight on effectively communicating his ideas as his fears of not being understood, amongst others, overwhelms him.” Those fears of intercultural anxiety can be at least somewhat relieved if people in this type of positions are made to feel involved and accepted with their opinions and ideas respected.

Step 4. Discourage Herd Mentality
“Herd mentality refers to a closed and one dimensional approach. Such a way of thinking curbs creativity, innovation and advancement as people are restricted in how to think, approach and engage with people or challenges.”

Step 5. Shun Insensitive Behaviour
“People can and do behave in culturally insensitive ways. By attacking someone’s person, you attack their culture and therefore their dignity. This can only be divisive. When insensitive behavior is witnessed it is the responsibility of all to shun it and ensure it remains unacceptable.”

Begin the Shunning! I don’t completely agree with the idea that attacking a person is an attack on their culture though. What if that person is a chronic liar or thief? Then I am certainly only attacking them personally and their poor personal choices are not a result of their culture. And I wouldn’t need to attack their dignity because they’ve already done it themselves.
Cultural Insensitivity Can lead to the loss of potential customers and friends whom you have offended.

Step 6. Be Wise
“People need to be aware how to interact with people with respect and knowledge. Intercultural communication is essentially founded upon wisdom, i.e. showing maturity of thought and action in dealing with people. Through thinking things out and have background knowledge to intercultural differences much of the communication problems witnessed within business could be avoided.”

An immense challenge to being “wise” in intercultural interactions is lack of exposure to cultural differences which equals lack of knowledge. Can you really be faulted for offending someone by doing something you just weren’t aware would be offensive? Such as not knowing that in some Latin cultures, people are often as much as 30 minutes later than the agreed meeting time when conducting business. If you come from a culture that percieves time as a commodity might be upset someone arrives late. And being offended by this behavior which is normal in Latin America may be perceive that frustration as demanding and offensive. Perhaps sometimes lack of intercultural knowledge is forgivable if you are kind and understanding about the situation.

So with these “steps” in mind, we can attempt to challenge the intercultural fear of the unknown, biases, prejudices, and anxieties within ourselves and others.

But the two most major barriers to intercultural communication are still Language and Mindset. Languages can be learnt, and communication is still possible if you try. When I was studying Chinese in China, there were some Turkish girls in my class. They didn’t speak any English at all, and their Chinese was terrible. But we had fun communicating and they taught me quite a bit of Turkish. Language doesn’t need to be as severe a barrier to intercultural communication as some people think it is. There is always a way to communicate.
Though mindset is often the unbreakable barrier I’ve yet to break. How do you do it? Very often people have a mindset of anxiety, fear of the unknown, or complete indifference to people they perceive as different from themselves that prevents them from cultivating quality friendships and engaging in genuine communication with people they categorize as “other.” In that case, I would say become the change you want to see in the world. Set a good example and treat people with the same respect and inquisitive consideration you would like them to give you.