If you’ve ever sat on a video call with a group of people from different parts of the world, you probably noticed a few differences from the very beginning. From the way they responded to the invite to the time they showed up, and how they greeted other participants, every action is a little sample of how their cultural background shaped their personality.
Even if someone lives next to you, chances are they were brought up vastly different from you. Cultural differences have increasingly been on the table in recent years, and with good reason. The world is more interconnected than ever before, and cross-cultural communication is now the norm — not the exception.
Online tools have both helped and hindered communication by giving us more spaces for open exchange but also removing the intangible elements of those exchanges — like nonverbal cues, eye contact, tones of voice, and gestures that add context to conversations.
In this blog, we’re talking about the most common challenges for cross-cultural communication and how you can overcome them to create a safe, inclusive space for all participants to engage.
4 Barriers To Cross-cultural Communication
1 – Stereotypes
A stereotype is a preconceived notion about a group which means that anyone who belongs to that group acts a certain way.
Whether you realize it or not, most people have held a stereotype about people from a different culture as true. It may not have malicious intent. But stereotyping limits people who are different from us and puts a label on their actions and culture, classifying them as others, many times without justification.
To make matters worse, we often believe that “positive” stereotypes are a compliment instead of seeing the way they drive a wedge and single out others for being different.
Stereotypes in cross-cultural communication may look like the expectation that someone from a certain country is soft-spoken or passive while expecting others to be aggressive or loud.
2 – Ethnocentrism
As humans, we have a tendency to interpret others’ actions based on our understanding and perspectives of the world. We’re used to things being a certain way; anything that falls outside the norm can be perceived as inferior or wrong.
You’ve likely seen examples of ethnocentrism with common manifestations of culture, like ethnic foods or music.
Ethnocentrism hinders us from understanding and embracing different standpoints and learning about our coworkers’ or classmates’ cultures from a neutral perspective.
3 – Language
The ability to speak is what differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And language is how we interact with those around us. However, culture plays a huge role in how we use and understand language. For example, words or phrases have wildly different meanings in different regions, and you can lose a lot in translation. That’s what cross-cultural communication is all about.
In addition, people who learn a second language may never truly catch its nuances the way a native speaker, who grew up in the culture, would. They may also feel self-conscious about their accent or have a hard time with certain formats. For example, it may be easier for a non-native English speaker to read than to watch a video, or they may withdraw from team calls if they feel discomfort speaking in front of a large group.
4 – Values and Beliefs
When interacting with others, we see their actions — but not the reason behind them. Values are the shared agreements people hold true and can dictate the way they behave. For example, order, timeliness, and communication styles are all influenced by a person’s environment and culture.
Similarly, religious and spiritual beliefs are an essential component of many cultures around the world. And they may impact the way people behave in and out of professional environments.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Their Role in Cross-cultural Communication
You’ve likely heard about DEI, or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, before. These terms have been a topic of discussion in recent years, and there are some blurred lines about their meaning. So we can start by defining them. Diversity refers to the range of characteristics and backgrounds of the people who make up a group. Equity focuses on giving everyone access to the same opportunities, regardless of their background. And inclusion is all about diverse individuals having a seat at the table.
In an increasingly connected world, these concepts help us understand how we can interact with others who are seemingly different from us and what we’re used to. Studies show that diversity, equity and inclusion improve productivity and spark innovation because results come from different perspectives. This leads participants to outside-the-box thinking and creative solutions to once-paralyzing challenges.
Foster Psychological Safety
To make your training program — and workplace — a more diverse and inclusive place, start by creating a psychologically safe space. A psychologically safe space is one where people feel comfortable voicing concerns or ideas that fall outside the expected path.
Diverse and inclusive teams may still face cross-cultural communication challenges. But they’re better equipped to manage the differences that arise and resolve conflict effectively.
Take Culture Into Account
Individuals’ customs and beliefs are essential parts of cross-cultural communication. Ignoring this fact is bound to have a negative impact on your programs and your team’s interaction.
Instead, you’ll want to embrace these differences and play to everyone’s strengths to bring out the best in the team. You’ll want to have clear guidelines and a basic framework for communication. These guidelines can include not interrupting others, voicing opposition in a civil manner, or always having safeguards for disagreements in place to prevent conflict from escalating.
Offer a Range of Options
When it comes to online training or resources, consider having a range of formats that caters to different participants’ needs. Videos, articles, ebooks, audio files, and infographics will allow participants to consume the content in a format that adapts best to their abilities.
We recently wrote this guide to eLearning content types for a successful delivery.
Cross-cultural Communication Takes Work
Whether you’re hosting an online training program or bringing your in-person team online, cross-cultural communication is challenging. It’s about bringing people and their beliefs together harmoniously under one (online) roof to engage and collaborate with one common objective in mind.
At Talance, we’ve been developing professional development programs for cross-cultural teams for over 20 years. If your team is in need of remote training, book a consultation now to learn more about what we can do for you.