Self-awareness is the key to communication across cultures
December 15, 2017
When relocating to another country, learning as much as you can about the culture and language will help you to adapt more easily. However, as Alyssa Bantle, Crown’s Intercultural and Language Services Curriculum Manager, explains, awareness of your own cultural and linguistic habits is just as important.
“One thing we stress as part of our all of our intercultural training programs is self-awareness. This means being aware of how you come across and of what you are bringing to the interaction,” Alyssa says. “You need to know your own comfort zone and try to understand where the other person’s comfort zone is during an interaction. If you sense he or she is getting uncomfortable or frustrated, you need to shift your style to close the gap between your preferred way of communicating and another person’s preferred way of communicating.”
Alyssa gives the example of a German employee relocating to Mexico. “Germans see directness as a key way to build trust and create credibility, so indirectness can be seen as being dishonest or having something to hide.” Meanwhile, Mexican culture is very focused on relationships, so directness can be damaging to the harmony being created in a burgeoning friendship or business relationship. “Mexicans are always going to be assessing the situation, trying to draw conclusions on what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling and they don’t expect you to say it. Their language reflects this; they have words and phrases that tend to leave some room for interpretation. The German language on the other hand is much more about precision, thus leaving as little room for interpretation as possible.”
In most cases, to interact successfully, neither party needs to completely transform the habits they’ve developed over a lifetime. What they do need to do is be aware of what is happening (or not happening) in an interaction. “You’re not a Mexican in Mexico and they know that,” Alyssa says. “When you’re being what Mexicans will perceive as direct, it can be perceived as rude so the first thing to do is say, ‘you know, in my culture we tend to communicate more directly, so I’m sorry if at times I sound forward. My intention is not to offend but to communicate clearly.” The indirect nature of Mexicans is also bound to lead to misunderstandings for a German, Alyssa says. “Just be aware of signals. In Mexico, if somebody says, ‘well, that might be difficult’, you need to ask an open-ended follow-up question. That’s probably that person telling you, ‘we not sure we can do it but we’re really trying to do our best’.”
Another culture gap that Alyssa has observed is between the positivity towards risk-taking of Americans and the more analytical disposition of Europeans. She explains, “Risk-taking is such a part of the U.S. story. The U.S. is a culture that has always supported and encouraged people to take risks and that can-do optimism can be unsettling for cultures that are more risk-averse due to a longer, more complex history or experience of having things not go so well. A lot of Europeans are much more likely to say, ‘wait a minute, let’s analyze this before we jump in and do something’.”
This cultural difference is particularly important in a working relationship, says Alyssa. “When Europeans are working with Americans they need to be careful to not come across as too negative. Focusing on all the ways that this project could fail will make you lose your American audience.” The solution in this situation is, once again, self-awareness and transparency, Alyssa advises. “Again you could say, ‘in my culture we’re quite analytical, so here are the possible challenges I see’. Just labelling your cultural habits – that can help a lot.”
A new location doesn’t have to mean a completely new you. Alyssa advises that you can be yourself as long as:
1. You’re aware of yourself and your cultural habits.
2. You make an ongoing effort to learn about your new colleagues and friends and their cultural habits.
3. You approach the relocation as an ongoing opportunity to learn and grow.
In fact, your new colleagues and friends will probably welcome this openness around your – and their- cultural preferences and habits. It can a fun and refreshing approach for everyone involved.
If you would like to build your cultural self-awareness and your knowledge of other cultures, contact us to find out more about our Intercultural Training services.