Today’s workforce is both more spread out and more closely connected than ever before. In a single day, you might communicate with a colleague in California, a business partner in Berlin, and a customer in Hong Kong. More diversity among coworkers and customers means more growth and innovation, but it can also make collaboration a bit more complicated. With people from so many different backgrounds (geographic, cultural, generational, and more) interacting on a daily basis, cross-cultural communication at work has become critical to success.
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What is cross-cultural communication?
Cross-cultural communication refers to an exchange of information and meaning between individuals or groups from different backgrounds.
Effective cross-cultural communication is necessary to bridge potential divides in the workplace, including differences in the following:
Language: Completely different languages, dialects of the same language–even heavy regional accents
Cultural norms: For example, shaking hands vs. bowing when you meet someone
Geographic location: Different countries, but also different cities (or even neighborhoods!)
Time zone: Especially critical for businesses that rely heavily on remote communication, but plays a role in any business that operates beyond the local level
Age: Including the particular values and points-of-view of different generations
Education: For example, business leaders with PhDs communicating with interns who are working toward their bachelor’s degrees
Work culture: The different cultures of individual businesses, which can affect interactions with various partners and vendors
Communication style: For example, an executive who prioritizes the bottom line communicating with a colleague who uses a more personal, big-picture approach
How cross-cultural communication impacts business
Work is shifting toward more digital collaboration across borders, making cross-cultural communication a vital component of success.
Remote workplace models allow companies to hire candidates in other states and countries, rather than being limited to local candidates or forcing non-local hires to relocate. Faster internet, cloud technology, and improved processing speeds have all made it more convenient than ever for individuals and teams to connect regardless of location. Outsourcing and nearshoring, meanwhile, have become commonplace practices across many industries.
Digitization has also paved the way for greater inclusivity, and those companies concerned with building inclusive workplaces must consider the impact of cross-cultural differences within their organizations.
Better cross-cultural communication facilitates greater understanding between teammates. These strong internal relationships foster a sense of camaraderie, improve engagement, and minimize churn.
Cross-cultural communication can also impact business operations and company health in several ways. We’ve also included an example for each.
Impact on productivity
Productivity is only possible with communication. How effective your teams are at bridging various cross-cultural divides will directly impact their ability to collaborate and work productively.
Time zone troubles
Your development team is based in Moscow, Russia. Your production team is in Quito, Ecuador. These teams will need to communicate to overcome geographical differences. Language differences may cause costly misunderstandings and skew project management timelines if appropriate training and resources are not provided. Meanwhile, a nine-hour difference in time zones will require creative solutions to allow the teams to stay in touch without working unreasonable hours.
Impact on customer relationships
A single negative experience can cause a customer to walk away; multiple bad experiences will increase churn and erode brand reputation. This makes it imperative for customer-facing team members to be adept at bridging potential cultural divides to nurture positive customer relationships.
Your customer support team is in India, but your company is based in the US. Multilingual fluency will be a must for your support team members, as they will need to communicate with customers from many different countries daily. The more familiar a support team member is with a customer’s language and culture, the more clearly they will communicate. This clarity will prevent misunderstandings, accelerate customer resolutions, and promote increased customer satisfaction.
Impact on marketing
If your marketing audience is global, you must consider cross-cultural differences when creating and implementing any new marketing strategy. Mistranslations and misunderstandings might be confusing and erode brand authority. At worst, they can be off-putting, even offensive, which can severely damage your brand image. Even if your marketing efforts are mainly focused on a single country or region, it is still important to consider potential cultural differences within that city or region.
There are numerous real-life examples of companies failing to account for cross-cultural differences in their marketing. HSBC Bank, for example, was forced to spend $10 million in 2009 to rebrand as a result of a simple translation error. (For this reason, idioms, slang, and other phrases that do not translate well are best avoided when addressing a global audience.)
Examples of the challenges of cross-cultural miscommunication
Cross-cultural miscommunications cannot be addressed unless they are first recognized. Below are a few examples of how these miscommunications might manifest within your organization.
Misunderstandings between employees
A team lead asks one of their highest-performing team members, a transfer from an international office, to handle two large projects simultaneously. When the team lead checks in, the team member assures them that they’re “fine” and their workload isn’t overwhelming. Later, the team lead finds out the team member has been staying several hours late each night to complete the work.
What went wrong?
The team lead is from a culture that is generally plain-spoken and straightforward. They take their team member literally when they say they’re fine with their workload.
The team member’s culture strongly discourages criticizing their managers or other senior staff. They worry that speaking up about their workload would negatively impact their career.
Miscommunications with customers
A customer in Japan contacts a customer support representative in the US to troubleshoot an issue with a product. Although the support team member is warm and friendly, their language is rife with American colloquialisms and slang.
What went wrong?
Because the support team member had to rephrase their suggestions or explanations frequently, it took longer than they expected to resolve this issue. Consequently, they don’t have time for other tasks.
The customer also spends more time than necessary to resolve their problem. They’re confused and frustrated by the slang used by the representative and leave a mixed review of the service to reflect this.
Unintended bias in job descriptions
A recruiter composes a job description for a newly open position. It is an entry-level position, but the job listing uses complex academic language and their description is rife with technical jargon. It also lists experience in international settings as a desired, if not mandatory, qualification. Although many candidates apply, almost all of them are primary English speakers.
What went wrong?
This job description created an unintentional bias against the entry-level applicants the ad was meant for. It also drove bias against multilingual applicants whose familiarity with English may be adequate for the position but who are not fluent enough to fully understand the job description.
Diversity issues in marketing materials
Your new marketing campaign features a series of video and print ads featuring families using your products. All the families are of the same ethnicity and share the same structure, two heterosexual parents and two kids.
What went wrong?
Families that do not resemble the families from the ads feel excluded and choose to buy from other brands that feel more welcoming to them. This can also alienate employees who belong to a minority group that isn’t part of the campaign, and they feel ostracized and isolated.
Use of emojis
You’re chatting with a colleague over your company’s Slack or Microsoft Teams when they tell you that they’re going through a hard time. You want to be sympathetic, and decide to add various emojis to your message. However, the emojis muddled your message of support and your colleague is left questioning the sincerity of the interaction, or they feel overwhelmed by your response after opening up about a sensitive topic.
What went wrong?
Emojis are tricky. Not only is the context in which they are used critical to consider, but some emojis might hold different meanings to different people. And we cannot assume they will transcend cross-cultural divides. Emojis are wide open to a number of interpretations based on context, worldview, and cultural background–and not all of those interpretations may be positive.
How to improve cross-cultural communication
Effective cross-cultural communication is not something your brand can master overnight, but your organization can take steps today to catalyze positive change sooner rather than later. Here are steps to take on a company and individual level.
Company Level: Making cross-cultural communication a company-wide initiative ensures sustainable improvement, both internally and externally.
Provide Training and Resources
Include sensitivity training in your employee onboarding process, and review company-wide standards annually.
Offer free, accessible cross-cultural training programs, tools, and resources (in-person and online, if possible).
Ensure employees know how and where to file complaints, make suggestions, and give other feedback related to diversity.
Provide access to advanced writing assistants like Grammarly Business that can help employees avoid miscommunications in emails, reports, marketing materials, and other written documents.
Establish inclusive policies and standards
Commit to inclusivity by including it in your brand mission statement and values.
Establish inclusive policies for working, communicating, and managing across different cultures.
Conduct regular communication audits to identify barriers and develop strategies for overcoming them.
Gather feedback from employees and customers to pinpoint problem areas in internal and external communications.
Make cross-cultural communication equitable
When scheduling companywide or team meetings, be sure to take different time zones into account.
Offer remote work options (if your brand does not already), and ensure employees have access to multiple remote channels and know to access them.
Offer employees communication channels that don’t require them to be in the same time zone. Email is a great example of this.
Keep messaging consistent
Develop and share a brand style guide that will codify company-wide expectations around cross-cultural communication and etiquette.
Include guidelines around written, verbal, and visual communication, both internal and external.
Work with expert-level translators when necessary to ensure all communications (especially global marketing campaigns) are translated properly.
Give employees access to a digital communication assistant like Grammarly Business that can quickly and easily ensure all written communications align with internal guidelines.
Individual Level: Lead by example and address individual areas for improvement.
Listen actively and respond with empathy
Pay attention to nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, posture, gestures), especially in video calls.
Be aware of your own nonverbal cues and avoid using gestures that may not translate well.
Learn to recognize different communication styles and respond accordingly.
Make sure your tone matches your intent (when in doubt, try Grammarly’s tone detector).
Be respectful at all times
Maintain a professional approach in writing and verbal communication.
Avoid yes/no questions, as in many cultures it is considered impolite (and possibly embarrassing) to answer with a direct negative.
When using humor, take care to consider how employees from different backgrounds may interpret the joke.
Familiarize yourself with other cultures’ business etiquette–e.g., handling different power dynamics, or if and when gifts are suitable.
Strive for clarity in all communications
If you are tempted to include emojis, gifs, etc., ask yourself:
Is this the best way to communicate this idea?
Is there a chance this image could be misinterpreted?
Avoid jokes, colloquialisms, jargon, and slang if there is any chance they could muddle your message’s meaning, especially when the recipient is from a different culture.
Make sure your written communications are free from potentially confusing or misleading mistakes with an AI-powered writing assistant like Grammarly Business.
Be sure to enunciate clearly when speaking aloud.
Remember that generally, increasing your volume when speaking to secondary English speakers will not improve their understanding.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do, whether you’re the owner of a small startup or a leader in an international enterprise, is to keep an open mind and to encourage company-wide adaptability as well. Being open to continuous learning and recognizing and addressing mistakes are keys to overcoming communication barriers and facilitating effective cross-cultural communication in the workplace.
Grammarly is a digital writing assistant that can help you and your employees navigate cross-cultural communication at work. To learn more, reach out to us or get Grammarly Business for your team today.