The ways in which we communicate are often influenced by the culture in which we were raised. Cultural differences can lead to communication breakdowns without us even realizing it.
Within our individual families and the cultures within which we grow up, we learn how to interact with one another based on social norms. When we don’t have an awareness that someone else’s communication norms are different from our own, we run into communication problems.
In this article, we’ll explore how cultural differences can impact communication and what we can do to minimize the impact this can have on our ability to work well together.
I’ve spent a lot of time consulting to Indigenous organizations. When I first began this work, I really had no understanding of our cultural differences, beyond what I would have learned in a textbook in school. I also didn’t realize the extent to which this would impact our communication styles.
For instance, whereas in North American Caucasian culture, we tend to place a lot of value on being assertive and sharing ideas, listening is of the utmost importance in Cree culture. People in North American business settings are not used to long pauses and silence. This generally makes people extremely uncomfortable. In contrast, the Cree can easily sit in silence for several minutes after a question has been asked, giving the other person time to reflect.
When people were not aware of these differences (or if they looked down upon them), it easily led to significant imbalances in contributions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties in conversations.
I participated once in a conference call where I was in Montreal with non-Indigenous individuals who, aside from myself, were not familiar with Cree culture. We were joined by several Indigenous individuals on the other end of the line. Any time someone in Montreal would ask a question, there would be silence on the other end of the line.
Because I’d been consulting to the Cree for awhile at this point, I had learned to just wait silently. But those who weren’t familiar with Cree culture would immediately start asking, “Hello?… Hello?… Hello?… Are you there??? Hello?”.
They immediately assumed there was a problem with the phone connection or that the people on the other end maybe hadn’t heard.
That was EXACTLY what I had done when I had started this work. I didn’t understand the cultural differences in the nuanced social norms around communication.
This lack of awareness led me to experience a lot of communication challenges in the first year of this consulting work. (Yes! Despite specialized in communication for my entire 18+ year career, I still experience communication breakdowns at times!).
My biggest learning through this work was that the more I was able to learn about and respect our cultural differences, the easier communication and collaboration became.
Here are my top 3 lessons of what we can do to help make sure that cultural differences don’t lead to communication breakdowns.
1. Don’t make assumptions about the person
Too often, people view cultural differences that influence how someone communicates as an ingrained characteristic of the person. In many ways, this indirectly labels the person as “good” or “bad”. People are labelled as being too passive, not taking enough initiative, being too abrasive, being overly controlling, etc.
This evaluation is often related to how well the person is demonstrating the social norms of the dominant culture.
Do yourself and society a favour and try to look beyond these perceptions and assumptions. When you find yourself judging someone, ask yourself why. Challenge your perception and your own assumptions of why you view the person this way. Check your assumptions, ditch the labels and instead, seek to understand.
2. Ask questions
The best way to get around your assumptions is to clarify them. Ask open-ended questions. Seek to understand other people’s behaviours instead of to judge them. The more you understand about the social norms of other cultures, the more you’ll be able to work collaboratively with a variety of different people.
3. Be adaptable
Stop expecting others to adapt entirely to you and your needs. This is the very definition of privilege. Imagine if you were suddenly asked to be somebody completely different from who you were raised to be and to communicate completely differently, just because everyone around you is. How would that feel? What would it feel like to have to show up at work every day, pretending to be someone you’re not?
For collaboration to truly work, we need to all be willing to consider taking a step towards the other person. Organizations who embody this philosophy have far fewer communication breakdowns, better employee retention and more engaged employees.
Give it a try. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how cultural differences impact communication in your workplace.
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