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Summary:

Technology may be making distance irrelevant, but just because the logistical challenges of working with far away colleagues are receding, doesn’t mean the cultural ones are diminishing. How can you avoid miscommunication and unintended offence when dealing with colleagues from different backgrounds? Experts offer tips.

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Technology may increasingly be making distance irrelevant, but just because the logistical challenges of working with colleagues half a world away are receding, doesn’t mean the cultural ones are diminishing. One day, connectedness may lead to greater understanding and increase our capacity to accommodate those with deeply different backgrounds. But what’s an internationally dispersed team to do in the meantime?

INSEAD professor Erin Meyer recently offered a few ideas on INSEAD Knowledge, suggesting that while conflict is a natural part of collaboration, when it occurs across cultures it can be a source of discomfort, offence and more practically, less efficient working.

Meyer cites a recent survey by CultureWizard, an intercultural training consultancy, that found that 63 percent of respondents working for multinational companies said that nearly half of their teams were located outside their country to illustrate the urgency of the issue. She then goes on to explain that, based on interviews she’s conducted for her research, different cultures often have very different views on conflict and confrontation.  She gives this quote from an Indonesian professional as an example:

Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational in our culture. We had a meeting with a group of French managers from headquarters, where they went around the table asking each of us: ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?’ At first we were just shocked that we would be put on the spot in a meeting with a lot of people. That is just an insult!

The French managers, for their part, explained that their schooling emphasized open debate and they felt that, “with confrontation you reach excellence, you have more creativity, and you eliminate risk.” How do you bridge such wide gaps? Meyer offers three tips:

Do your preparation. In many Asian cultures, the default purpose of a meeting is to put a formal stamp on a decision that has already been made in previous informal meetings. In Japanese this is called Nemawashi. The tendency rings true to various degrees in China, Malaysia, Korea, and Thailand. If you lead a team with members from one of these countries, try making one-on-one phone calls before the formal meeting to hear the real deal.

Depersonalize the confrontation. Instead of asking people to express their opinions and challenge one another’s ideas in a meeting, ask team members to send all their ideas to a nominated third party before the meeting and have that person create a list of ideas without stating who had the suggestions. This way, participants can confront each idea during the meeting — without confronting the person associated with it.

Change your language. You might try following the advice of Sean Gilbride, an American manager based in Mexico. “I soon learned that if I wanted to encourage team debate it was important to use phrases like ‘I do not quite understand your point’ and ‘please explain more why you think that’, he says, “and to refrain from saying ‘I disagree with that’ which would shut down the conversation completely.”

Language is also at the heart of the suggestions of Ethan Becker, the author of Mastering Communication at Work and president of The Speech Improvement Company. He argues that even between team members with a solid grasp of their common language, terms are often understood in subtly (or not so subtly) different ways. “Product research” may mean $50,000 dollars worth of professional polling to an executive from one culture and simply asking acquaintances for feedback to one from another. Yet they can meet, discuss “research” and never reveal this chasm between their understandings. The miscue may only be revealed some time later when its caused aggravation and probably a good deal of time and money. Becker offered three suggestions to help head off such simple but profound cross-cultural communication challenges in an email:

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

Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms. It’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time now to define your terms – even if it’s only by asking a simple question such as “what do we mean by take-away,” and then answering it – can save time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone is using terms in the same way.  Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that doesn’t prove that you’re on the same page, so always double-check.

Have you run into cross-cultural communication trouble and, if so, did you manage to resolve it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Joelk75.

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  1. Reading up on your colleagues’ culture is incredibly helpful. I have been living and working in South Korea for a few years and my research has helped me several times. Things like knowing that, in South Korea, yes can have multiple meanings is key. Here, yes can mean anything from “I agree” to “I heard you and will think about it.” Without being aware of these types of cultural differences, communicating clearly and effectively is next to impossible.

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