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Successful Cross Cultural Communication

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In today’s global business environment, more and more of us are required to understand people who comes from countries and cultures different from our own. While there is no short and easy way to learn about a given culture in any depth, there are some general principles that lead to success in communicating and conducting business with people of backgrounds unlike our own.

Here are some important points to understand:

Direct experience is the best way to begin to learn any culture. Just as the best way to learn a new language is to become immersed in that language, so too is it most helpful to learn another culture by jumping right in. This may not always be practical, but radio stations, music, trips to religious organizations or other clubs that cater to members of a specific group – all of these things can be helpful ways to begin.

Differences can feel like a threat at first. No one likes to feel like a stranger, and feeling unable to communicate or to decipher aspects of behavior that don’t fit with our own habitual experiences can make any of us feel alone. This is a natural part of human experience, but even so, it is important to keep these feelings in perspective and remember that differences are less important than commonalities.

We tend to overlook similarities and notice just the differences when we first begin to interact with members of another culture. And then, when we apply the standards of interpretation that we would use in our own cultures to the behavior of those in the unfamiliar culture, we will draw mistaken conclusions. We all share 98% of the same DNA, and we are all far more alike than we are different, but that’s easy to forget in the beginning.

Stereotyping due to overgeneralization is a common occurrence, especially among those who only interact with another culture infrequently. When we are faced with uncertainty, the human mind naturally seeks to create some order or system from what we observe. This is especially true when we may feel vulnerable due to uncertainty. So the mind creates its own set of rules or generalizations – which may be based on some surface realities and patterns – but which fail to account for real experience and individual variation. What’s more, since we may feel threatened, the human mind can presume negative motives or draw negative inferences from the generalizations we create/observe, which forms then forms the basis of prejudice.

There is always more variation within groups than there is between them. What does that mean? That means that no matter how much we may perceive groups A and B as different, the amount of difference between those groups is dwarfed by the amount of variation within each group. In other words, both groups have shy people and daring people, honest and dishonest, bellicose and accommodating types, etc. There each group is much more of mixed stew of types of people, and the patterns within each group are more alike than different. It’s just that culture and history shape the customs and rituals though which those various aspects of human nature are expressed. Think of it this way: both Apple and Microsoft operating systems allow you to accomplish work with a word processing system. The work is the same, but the language, the coding, though which that basic work is accomplished or expressed is different. This is why cross cultural communication takes work – we have to go back and examine aspects of our own “operating systems” and understand the “systems” of others to be able to communicate between the two “platforms.”

For precisely the reason described above, our own cultural identities are not apparent to us until we begin to interact with others from different backgrounds.

Finally, cultures are always changing, especially as they interact with each other. Even from within, cultures move and flow and change through time, even when they think they don’t. But the pace of change is accelerated when cultures that reinforce different styles of communication, and which accent different binding customs and values, interact with each other. The result is often disorienting (to say the least), but the result is inevitably that both cultures change in the process. Individuals who begin to bridge these gaps are like pioneers, blazing paths and creating plausible options for hybrid identities for others to copy and test in the future.


A.J. Schuler,2003


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