Productivity Technology Work

How Cross-Cultural Communication Drives Workplace Success

By Jamie Benjamin on 09 August 2021

The age of monocultural workplaces is far behind us in the 21st century. Cross-cultural communication is now an integral part of the workforce and a major driver for success. But how do we implement it in our working lives?

Society is rapidly evolving into a multicultural melting pot of diverse languages, religions, practices, and personalities. A culturally diverse workforce can bring great strength to a company. Different individual strengths and perspectives can give rise to more insightful, creative, and critical solutions to problems both inside and outside of the business.

The rapid expansion of global trade, co-operation, and mobility has integrated the working world in ways we never imagined were possible. Now, forward-thinking CEOs are embracing the change, not just for the sake of social progress, but for productivity as well.

Diversity throughout the workforce is only the first step on the road to cross-cultural integration; there must be efficient channels of communication in place as well.

Redefining “Normal”

How do we go about cultivating not only an inclusive workspace, but also a cohesive one?

Well, human beings have a tendency to formulate ideas about what we deem to be “normal,” or commonplace at the very least.

These ideas look extremely different depending on who you ask and where in the world you’re focusing your attention. Cultural normalcy is entirely subjective. However, this notion does not always translate into the real world.

People tend to become uncomfortable and/or judgmental when confronted with a person, behavior, or identity that is too far outside of their cultural understanding.

While this is not an unusual reaction, it can and must be overcome for the sake of furthering our society as a co-operative, multicultural entity.

Communication Skills in the 21st Century

Communication is about much more than simple words.

While the language barrier is a significant challenge that we cannot underestimate, we can overcome it with patience, good humor, and awareness of other types of communication.

Humor and patience are essential elements of verbal communication between two workers of diverse national lineage. While it can be frustrating to try and convey complex ideas to someone who doesn’t speak your mother tongue, getting irritated or being rude and condescending is the least helpful thing you can do.

Instead, try to adjust your attitude and think outside the box. Appreciate the effort that your colleague, client, or supplier is making to converse with you, shrug off the little mistakes, and share a laugh.

Furthermore, consider how other forms of communication influence the success of your approach or help you reach your goal.

Non-verbal communication is a massive part of how we relate to one another every day, although we tend not to realize it. Body language, facial expression, and other non-verbal cues make up a large portion of our interpersonal vocabulary.

To assume that these components of communication are universal is just as incorrect and dangerous as assuming that everyone can speak or understand English. Understanding your own cultural context, the cultural backgrounds of others, and how tricky it can be to mix them, especially in the context of a workplace, can end disputes before they start.

For example, an American worker prides themselves on their winning smile, their audible and confident tone of voice, and will go out of their way to make eye-contact. This is more or less the Western standard of “good” non-verbal communication. It is how we convey respect for ourselves and our conversational partners.

This, however, looks different depending on who you ask.

In Japan, workers are more reserved. They will greet you with a bow, not a handshake. They display less outward emotion and keep physical contact to a minimum. This may seem oddly formal or even unfriendly to an American, but it’s all a matter of perspective.

The more aware you are of how different cultures communicate and demonstrate respect, the less likely you are to take unnecessary offence and the more successful you will be in your cross-cultural interactions. Patience, self-awareness, and understanding are foundational aspects of a multicultural workforce.


Mutual Acceptance and Strong Leadership

Any interaction that does not begin with at least a grain of acceptance on behalf of both parties is likely to fail.

As members of contemporary society, we absolutely must be willing to accept what is different about our colleagues. This acceptance must also be demonstrated all the way up the ladder.

While employees are free-thinking adults who will inevitably form their own attitudes and opinions, it’s important to never underestimate the influence of leadership. If your CEO or manager prioritizes acceptance and leads by example, you are more likely to emulate that attitude.

Too often, the cultural practices of those who are different are dismissed and disrespected. It’s still not uncommon to hear a manager who subscribes to Western cultural norms complain about workers taking time off to celebrate other religious occasions. Yet they’ll readily wish employees happy Easter before jetting off to celebrate their own freedoms.

For many people, diversity means the gradual homogenization of humanity. This, however, is a narrow and short-sighted view of our increasingly integrative society.

Strength in diversity means embracing and celebrating each other’s differences, not the forcible adoption of the norms native to the land upon which you happen to stand.

Why This is Important

Inclusivity and understanding minimize workplace conflict, promote cooperation and collaboration and improve productivity

You may find yourself amazed at the innovation and efficiency borne from a willingness to look past our incongruences and combine our individual strengths.

Businesses that want to expand their audience and reach different global markets cannot do so without making an effort to communicate across borders. This may be as easy as learning more about a culture and how not to offend them, or to simplify business processes and procedures to make them more easily understood. Whatever route is taken, communication between employees, clients, and partners must be streamlined and clear, or else time is wasted, opportunities missed, and initiatives set to fail.

If we ever want to achieve the dream of a global village where we offer our best to the world and receive the world’s best in return, we need to step outside our comfort zones. We must embrace the diversity in which we find ourselves at work and at home.

An effort made to understand others is never wasted energy.