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4 ways Cross-cultural Communication becomes mis-Communication (2023)

Ways of speaking that come naturally to those educated and who grew up in one culture actually prevent effective communication when engaging in cross-cultural communication. I am going to examine X ways people communicate and how they are barriers to effective cross-cultural communication.

It matters! And I learned the real-life way.

My Master Degree’s thesis is all about leadership and culture. It sparked a life-long pursuit of understanding cross-cultural communication. My pursuit moved from theory and academics to essential life skill; I moved to Kenya.

After nearly 10 years involvement in education work in Kenya, I discovered that the words I used often prevented communication. Early on in those years I began to intentionally explore cross-cultural communication, cultural intelligence, and culture in general. I travelled extensively across East African countries – always with a cultural interpreter – and explored the different cultures. In Kenya, by the way there are over 42 identified ethnic peoples; cross-cultural experience was often across the road. Since then, I qualified for the two levels of Cultural Intelligence facilitation.

From the academic to the pragmatic: let’s look at real-life examples.

David working with high school's journalism club.

Avoid analogies.

I sat at the head of a long conference table, teaching a college course entitled Transformational Leadership. This was, after all, my area of expertise; my Master’s thesis examined this, and I had experienced both transformational leadership and its opposite, stifling leadership. Pages 17 to 32 were taken from a western leader describing styles of leadership with animal comparisons.

As we discussed “Owl style of leadership” I had to close the text and I actually said: “This is such a white book!” (I used the common Swahili term for white person: mzungu.) The class was silent, then one of the more outspoken in the group sighed in relief and nodded in agreement.

The problem? The author assumed a common understanding of the animal’s characteristics – often more caricatures than characteristics. These assumptions were shaped by western culture, Owls, in the west (thanks at least in part to Disney cartoons) are wise and careful. In Kenya, they are omens of bad luck or worse, evil.

What does “white a snow” really mean to … well anyone living in Africa (yeah, I know there's snow on top of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjero), a lot of Asia, the middle east…?

Avoid idioms.

An idiom, if you remember your junior high English class, is a group of words established by common usage as having a meaning outside the meaning of the individual words.

I sat at the back of a school assembly with the cool kids. (Being the only westerner in this rural Kenyan school was the only time I actually was allowed to sit with the cool kids. But that’s another story). The guest speaker, a teacher from Canada, stated that an idea was “a home run!” I asked the student sitting beside me, “Do you know what that means?” He shrugged and shook his head. “No.”

Idioms are (almost) aways culturally specific. “Don’t get your knickers in a knot!” means something to someone in the UK. “You have tomatoes in your eyes,” is clear, if you a German.

You get the picture. Make sure, if you use an idiom that you explain it clearly. And, better, work hard at removing them…speak literally and clearly.

Avoid Humour.

Jokes, like idioms, depend on a common understanding of words and nuance. Puns, for example, often rely on nuance: A lumberjack couldn’t do the job. He was axed.

At a deeper level, however, many cultures don’t value humour the same way. In some cultures, humour is a positive, emotional release, yet others see it as weak and a waste of time.

Like a good comedian, know your audience!

Direct or Indirect communication.

I spend more time discussing this in another blog, but some cultures speak directly, bluntly, even (to others’ ears) perhaps rudely. While other cultures speak carefully, circumspectly, indirectly.

In a one airport’s café, the server said, “You can’t sit here.” In another, “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable sitting over there.”

There is so much more to be said about this. I didn’t even consider non-verbal communication; a rolled eye, crossed arms, looking each other in the eye (or not).

Let’s use this as a beginning, a discussion starter.

If you have an experience in which communicating cross-culturally didn’t work – or did work – share them with me and let’s learn together.

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