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Cross Cultural Communication Strategies

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The key to effective cross-cultural communication is knowledge. First, it is essential that people understand the potential problems of cross-cultural communication, and make a conscious effort to overcome these problems. Second, it is important to assume that one’s efforts will not always be successful, and adjust one’s behavior appropriately.

For example, one should always assume that there is a significant possibility that cultural differences are causing communication problems, and be willing to be patient and forgiving, rather than hostile and aggressive, if problems develop. One should respond slowly and carefully in cross-cultural exchanges, not jumping to the conclusion that you know what is being thought and said.

William Ury’s suggestion for heated conflicts is to stop, listen, and think, or as he puts it "go to the balcony" when the situation gets tense. By this he means withdraw from the situation, step back, and reflect on what is going on before you act. This helps in cross cultural communication as well. When things seem to be going badly, stop or slow down and think. What could be going on here? Is it possible I misinterpreted what they said, or they misinterpreted me? Often misinterpretation is the source of the problem.

Active listening can sometimes be used to check this out–by repeating what one thinks he or she heard, one can confirm that one understands the communication accurately. If words are used differently between languages or cultural groups, however, even active listening can overlook misunderstandings.

Often intermediaries who are familiar with both cultures can be helpful in cross-cultural communication situations. They can translate both the substance and the manner of what is said. For instance, they can tone down strong statements that would be considered appropriate in one culture but not in another, before they are given to people from a culture that does not talk together in such a strong way. They can also adjust the timing of what is said and done. Some cultures move quickly to the point; others talk about other things long enough to establish rapport or a relationship with the other person. If discussion on the primary topic begins too soon, the group that needs a "warm up" first will feel uncomfortable. A mediator or intermediary who understands this can explain the problem, and make appropriate procedural adjustments.



Yet sometimes intermediaries can make communication even more difficult. If a mediator is the same culture or nationality as one of the disputants, but not the other, this gives the appearance of bias, even when none exists. Even when bias is not intended, it is common for mediators to be more supportive or more understanding of the person who is of his or her own culture, simply because they understand them better. Yet when the mediator is of a third cultural group, the potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings increases further. In this case engaging in extra discussions about the process and the manner of carrying out the discussions is appropriate, as is extra time for confirming and re-confirming understandings at every step in the dialogue or negotiating process.

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