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Cross-Cultural Communication Calamities and How to Avoid Them

Alessandra Patti 

November 13, 2019

“Give me a beer!” “Call me at this time!” I was shocked. I would have at least used a “please” or a “thank you.” I was an Italian arriving for the first time in Spain, for my master’s degree, and I could not get over how demanding (and, to me, rude) people seemed to be.

Increasingly globalized business and leisure mean that we are exposed to many different cultures and languages daily. And yet, we still find it difficult to overcome apparently simple cross-cultural communication barriers.

I had an image of “the Spanish” in my head but I was told by locals that this is how real people speak in Spain, and I shouldn’t take it personally. Spanish people speak fast when they ask for something. And their pragmatism is reflected in the sparing use of their language, which gives everything a sense of urgency.

The bigger problem though was my pre-defined concept of Spain and its culture. “Aren’t the Spanish considered very laid back?” I thought, “What about their two-hour lunch break? Their siestas? Where is all this urgency coming from?” 

Questioning Cultural Clichés

If I know one thing from my travels, it’s that some cultural clichés are not at all in line with the language used.

South Americans, for instance, are generally seen as very informal and laid back. But they often use the third person, formal means of address, “usted,” even when talking to their own parents, largely to show respect.

Conversely, English — originating from stereotypically the politest country in the world — uses the universal “you.” That doesn’t allow us to demonstrate any such respect.

I currently find myself in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Here people are very formal, but not the most direct. Their neighbors, however — the Germans — are way too “direct” according to the locals.

But, what do we mean by “too direct”?

Our feelings about this can be highly subjective. In my opinion, it really depends on the relationship that you have with the person you’re talking to and on how you choose to communicate messages to him or her. It also depends on that person’s own ideas about politeness and formality.

How Words Create Pain or Joy

We know that the way we give direct feedback to a co-worker can be beneficial or harmful, depending on how we deliver it. The words we use can be the difference between creating happiness or sadness. 

For instance, I love it when I go to the U.K., and I hear “cheers” from the waitress, just after she takes my order. For me, “cheers” is used to make a toast and celebrate something. It brings joy!

I know that, for the British, it is actually an informal way of saying “thank you” and closing a conversation. But my mind still interprets it as a good wish!

As for the U.S., I have heard that North Americans give many compliments freely. But also that they can do so too often, which can cause meaning and sentiment to get lost. How can you possibly know what is a real compliment and what is not?

Whatever the case, I would welcome a compliment any day. I live in Switzerland, after all, where widespread perfectionism means spontaneous compliments are rare. I’d be happy to hear praise, even if it is fake! After all praise can help foster high self-esteem and improve relationships.

Language Is More Than Just Words

A friend once said to me, “It must be hard for you to know so many languages.” I was surprised. I said, “Well, it’s actually a cool thing.”

But then he explained, “What I mean is that, because you can understand so much, you can get easily hurt, or you can hear things that you do not like. That might not reflect your beliefs or values.”  

I realized he was right. When you use or hear another language, you absorb more than words. It’s the way that another culture expresses itself to you. And this can carry a lot of beliefs and values that can differ greatly from yours or that might even offend you. 

Fighting Cross-Cultural Miscommunication With… Cross-Cultural Communication!

In my experience, communication is the solution to cross-cultural communication. Or, rather, to miscommunication.  

When people from different cultures communicate, they often choose English as a shared language. But as this is not their first language, it’s crucial that they make sure they both understand the limitations of the common “code” they have chosen to converse in. It’s also essential that they both explain and understand one another’s personal and cultural values and habits upfront.

Virtual Channels and Cross-Cultural Communication

Virtual communication adds another layer of difficulty to cross-cultural communication. This means that clarity is essential when using online channels, such as email, to communicate with people from different cultures.

I once had a boss from Denmark who I worked with at a U.S. company. Now in the U.S. it’s common practice to avoid spending time using formalities. So, one day I got an email from him: “Where are we with the marketing project???????????” 

To me, a thousand question marks like this is the equivalent of screaming in someone’s face. So I started getting annoyed. I explained to him how it works in Italy, and how important polite language is to me. His response was that I was being juvenile. You see? Yet another cross-cultural communication mistake. Made much worse by the online channels that we so depend on.

If I could make one recommendation from my experience (I’m particularly thinking about virtual teams and remote workers) it would be this: do not use email or WhatsApp as a means of expressing your beliefs, or making requests. Pick up the phone or try to have a conversation in person, if you can. Perhaps the new digital world that we live in nowadays can actually profit from old-fashioned kindness.

And, finally, whether it’s an urgent matter or not, there is always time for “please” or “thank you.” 

Have you ever had a cross-cultural communication calamity? How did you deal with it? Share your story in the Comments section, below.

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