With the increase in virtual teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thoughtful communication is even more important. Whether you are working with a multicultural team or establishing your product or service in another country, these foundational guidelines will help you communicate respectfully across cultures and geographies.
You may be asking yourself: What do I need to be aware of? How do I make the right impression?
First and foremost, do your research. Educate yourself in advance to avoid any missteps and, most importantly, demonstrate respect. Learn about the place where the teammate or offshore team is located. This may be as simple as looking up someone’s location in the address book rather than asking where they are from in the meeting.
Familiarize yourself with cultural communication norms. Get the knowledge to embrace differences, read context and meaning, and avoid offensive language or behavior. Resources such as The Culture Crossing Guide and IOR Global Services Knowledge Center are great places to start.
For example, in some Asian countries, such as Thailand, “Yes” may mean, “Yes, I follow what you are saying,” rather than, “Yes, let’s do that.” You can imagine how this can lead to confusion and frustration.
Plan meetings to accommodate different time zones. Use a meeting planner such as timeanddate.com to pick a time that is comfortable for everyone. If that’s not possible, offer to alternate the off-hours time-slot. When working with more than two very-different time zones, it may make sense to offer two different meeting times.
Be aware of regional holidays. Holiday calendars vary around the world. For example, not every country recognizes Chinese New Year and Golden Week. Some holidays are only observed by certain regions of a country, such as Fasching in Germany. Identify holidays to plan around and go over them with the team to make sure everyone is aware of upcoming holidays and time off.
Communicate your global mindset. It’s not us and them—it’s we. Your company (or headquarters) isn’t the sole authority or center of the universe, and a perceived imbalance could lead to negative feelings about the team dynamic. Harvard Business Review contributor Tsedal Neeley shares a framework for leading global teams. As a leader, be conscious about calling attention to each group’s contribution to the overall goal so that the meeting remains focused and everyone feels recognized.
Don’t assume to know where someone comes from. Anyone who has a French accent is not necessarily from France. In Europe alone, multiple other countries use French as an official language. This can be especially hurtful when there is a rivalry or unrest between the countries you are mixing up (Ukraine and Russia; India and Pakistan; etc.). You may sound arrogant or ignorant or both.
Avoid colloquialisms. Refrain from figures of speech such as “put your best foot forward” or “barking up the wrong tree” to help non-native speakers better understand you. People who speak other languages may well have an equivalent for a colloquial expression, however equating that to their own takes more time to process and takes the focus away from the conversation.
For example, in the United States people say “the grass is always greener on the other side” to mean that one’s own situation always seems worse than everyone else’s. In Brazil, one says “my neighbor’s chicken is always better than mine,” but in Farsi, “my neighbor’s chicken is always a goose.”
At any rate, it’s best to speak more literally so everyone can understand your meaning.
Turn on your video camera during meetings, when possible. It can be difficult for anyone, especially non-native speakers, to follow someone’s speech without seeing their mouth move or their facial expressions, such as when talking on the telephone or listening to the radio. How many puzzling song lyrics did you unlock once you watched the music video? And how tricky has it been to understand the grocery store clerk when you’re both masked? It’s the same idea here. Turn on your camera to add visual cues and context to your speech.
Be mindful of what your non-verbal communication is saying. Some gestures that are benign in your culture of origin are seen as offensive in other cultures. For example, the “OK” sign in the US—thumb and index finger together with other 3 fingers in the air—means something entirely different in Brazil and the same gesture means “money” in Japan.
The Gestures Around the World video shows several more great examples. Once you’re past the basics, the less-extreme examples of non-verbal communication offer insight into what others are thinking. Resources such as Live Japan Perfect Guide can demystify more subtle gestures.
Reflect your cultural awareness in email. Written correspondence, yet another step away from in-person communication that’s often sent hastily, also has great potential for misunderstandings. Darren Menabney provides excellent advice for email across cultures, such as adopting the right level of formality and being sensitive to the directness of your communication.
Now that you have a grasp of the basics, ask yourself: What will I do differently now that I’m aware of these nuances in language and communication?
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Carolyn Kollstedt (she/her) is a Program Manager with more than 20 years of experience bringing high-quality localized software and content experiences to global audiences. She has worked for a number of small businesses and multinational companies in the US and Europe. She speaks English, German, and some French. In addition to launching an e-commerce business, she is currently building expertise in digital marketing. She enjoys hiking, cycling, cooking, and spending time with her husband and 2 children.
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