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Tips For Communicating With Your Overseas Employees: Insights From An International Business Expert

Globalisation and high-speed internet have opened up our communication channels to almost every country and culture on the planet. As business’ enter more emerging markets and teams diversify both in-country and with remote workers internationally, cross-cultural communication is increasingly part of our daily work day.

With this in mind, we chatted to Dr. Dan Caprar, a Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney in International Business to give us some tips on how to communicate cross-culturally effectively.

Remember that communication is more than a cross-cultural issue

Every time we communicate, whether verbally, through text or even with body language, we are sending out a message that needs decoding.

“Even within the same culture you can have a lot of [what we call] general noise,” Dan says. “This is not necessarily literal noise, but all kinds of biases and interpretations and different ways of looking at what is being communicated.”

This noise has the power to distort messaging, changing the sender’s original intention to something entirely different.

“There is [always] a chance for misunderstandings,” Dan says.

Be careful not to make assumptions about cultures that look similar to your own

When we communicate with people from other cultures, there is an added layer to coding and decoding which increases the chances of misunderstanding. The most obvious challenge is of course language, but cultures will have differences in communication even if they utilise the same language.

“The likely difficulties with cultural differences will be even more pronounced when the cultures look like they might be similar,” Dan says.

This is because we are generally more prepared for differences with cultures that appear different.

“Let’s say I’m going to Japan [from Australia],” Dan says. “I expect there will be differences. I know I don’t speak the language so I’m much more alert and paying attention to the communication.”

In contrast, we can often forget about the differences between cultures which appear similar such as the US and Australia. “I would actually say to people going across cultures – be even more alert to cultures that look more similar to your own because that’s where we make assumptions as opposed to checking,” Dan says.

Always check that the messaging is clear

With all this in mind, it’s good to get into a habit of checking that your message was understood before moving forward.

“The basic rule of communication is to make sure the other party understands what you’re trying to say,” Dan says. “But then [you] also [want to] check what has been understood.”

This becomes extremely important when we talk with people from other cultures, even if we speak the same language.

“[Of course], it is equally important, if not even more important, to properly listen, as understanding the other party and their worldview is fundamental to effective communication.”

Acknowledge your own biases

We all have biases — it’s a normal function of our brain trying to simplify information processing and become more efficient. Unfortunately, automating processes can lead to subconscious stereotyping which is problematic, to say the least.

“We have to switch on the other way of thinking that’s a little bit slower and maybe less efficient at least in the first instance when we’re still learning,” Dan says.

When we engage in slow thinking, we approach interactions as learning opportunities rather than ways to confirm what we already think.

“We typically focus on learning about other cultures and trying to make predictions in terms of others’ behaviour, but we actually need to first understand our own biases and the worldview we come with,” Dan says.

That way the focus is on improving yourself rather than perpetuating expectations that may be unfair or even insensitive.

Treat all people as individuals with cultural backgrounds rather than cultural caricatures

While it’s definitely a good idea to do some preliminary research before entering a new market or working with an international team so that the responsibility of communication doesn’t lay unfairly on the other party, Dan suggests treating all information as a hypothesis rather than a fact and remember that not everyone will identify and represent the known features of a particular culture.

“Many people are actually bi-cultural or multi-cultural, [meaning] they have combined their home culture with whatever other cultures they’ve been exposed to, including ‘business culture,’ Dan says.

Business’ can often fall into the trap of communicating or providing services based on the perceived needs of a culture without engaging the individual.

“[A business may work in a] certain country where they know there is a more collective approach and come up with all of these kinds of incentives that fit that culture,” Dan says, “but that could be just a stereotype.”

“[They may end up working] with people that have moved away from that [lifestyle], or are maybe [interested] in working with your company because they, themselves, are more individualistic.”

Make time to ‘waste time’

The motivation within business culture is often to get work done efficiently. While this may be appropriate when thinking about day-to-day tasks, it’s less so when thinking in terms of communication.

Dan is a big advocate for ‘wasting time’ with people. He says taking time to get to know people, in the beginning, will have long-term effects on how well you communicate throughout your whole relationship.

“You might be very slow in the first interaction because you’re still exploring, observing, taking information in,” he says.

“But then you get to the stage where you know how you will work best together and can be very effective and efficient in getting things done.”

Incorporate face to face communication – At least in the beginning

As part of his ethos of ‘wasting time with people’, Dan is also a big advocate for face-to-face communication where possible.

“There is a lot of evidence that at least in initial stages it’s very important (even though it costs the company money) to bring the team together, so they get to know each other personally and then there is plenty of scope to work remotely later,” he says. 

This personal connection leads to a better understanding and is an effective way of dismantling stereotypes.

When face to face interaction is not possible, Dan suggests using as many channels of communication as possible. Use a mixture of video, email and chat communication as each method will bring out different ways of communicating leading to a fuller picture.

It’s also a good idea to “provide space for people to share as much as they can about themselves,” Dan says.

This means intentionally making time to talk about non-work related topics.

“This also allows for building knowledge about who I’m interacting with – what is this person worried about, what matters to them? Which leads to much better interaction beyond that.”

Create a ‘mini culture’ within your organisation

One way to ensure effective cross-cultural communication is to create a mini-culture within your company. This won’t necessarily match the home country of the organisation or that of international workers, but will be a hybrid of sorts aimed at creating ideal working conditions for all involved.

– Bree Caggiati

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