Can you give some examples of cross-cultural complexities which are of importance for communicators?
– An obvious example of complexity within a global organisation is the need to translate materials from one language to another. There may not be words in the other language that has exactly the same meaning, or the same word can have a different meaning. Even in the English language this happens: to ‘table an item’ at a meeting in England is to put it up for discussion; but to do this in the USA is to dismiss or postpone discussing the item.
– Translation becomes even more complicated when you might be translating concepts, like values or principles, and these are underpinned by different cultural values.
– As a communications lead, you need to be aware of this and consider what steps can be taken to ensure the meaning doesn’t get lost in translation.
Can you describe the importance of having knowledge about different cultural norms as a communicator?
– Awareness of cultural norms is an important trait for anyone working across more than one culture – not just communicators. It can help understand others and in achieving goals.
– But in communications, as we often have to advise our business and organise functions, being aware of cultural differences can mean we help avoid stress, misunderstandings or even causing offence. Consider meetings. Different cultures can have quite widely differing understandings about the purpose and acceptable behavior for meetings.
– In North America a meeting is frequently organised to work through the details of a project. The agenda will likely be clearly set out, with timings, and generally hearing from those in the room is encouraged. Seating plans are not normally needed.
– Whereas in some Asian countries, meetings are primarily about developing and strengthening relationships. In a meeting, there may be tremendous importance associated with the seating plan and there will be an accepted hierarchy of who speaks at what point. Frequently meetings in this type of culture will be held to demonstrate agreement of an approach – the discussion over the details will have taken place earlier.
How can communicators succeed to break down cultural barriers?
– We can’t break down the barriers on our own. But we can be aware of the barriers, and seek to raise awareness of them among those we work with.
– Anyone who operates across different cultures will become more successful if they improve their ‘global dexterity’. Global dexterity is the ability to adapt behavior across cultures without losing who you are in the process. It is the term used by Andrew Molinksy, associate professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School in his book – Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. Worth reading.
What are your thoughts on this year’s theme at WPRF “Communication Across Cultures”?
– The theme is excellent. As the world becomes a smaller and more connected place, we need to be ready for the opportunities for communications to support organisations succeed.
Text: Karvan Shahabi