What has just happened?

With some people, you don’t need a lot of explanations – you both just ‘get it’. Other people may appear very strange to you, and we may not particularly enjoy socialising or working with them. Tools such as NLP can help us to establish a rapport, or, alternatively we can find out more about our personality types through tools such as the Myers Briggs instrument, which may explain why some relationships and others are harder to make work.

If people from the same culture suffer from misunderstandings and communication conflicts, to the extent that they require tools to support the relationship, what happens when we engage with people who do not speak the same language, have an alternative set of learnt behaviours and a different educational background?

Following are five tips that may help you stop and pause before jumping to conclusions too quickly:

1) Know yourself

Who am I? What type of person am I?

Am I more of an extrovert or an introvert. Do I look at facts and figures or does my ‘intuition’ reign?

 How do I learn and how do I approach problem solving?

What was the acceptable way of learning at school? At school were we trained to memorise facts and figures or develop a more creative approach to thinking? What’s my own preference? If I get IKEA furniture, do I just have a go or do I follow the instructions? What is learnt and what comes ‘naturally’ to me?

What values do I have personally?

Do I like to be independent or is it normal to depend on the state, family and other external agencies? Do I enjoy taking responsibility for my actions? If I have a family emergency, do I put the job before family? Do I live to work or work to live? Do I plan long-term or short-term?

And how has my national/regional culture influenced my thinking, behaviour and communication style?

People grow up in a community that generally has a shared history and language. They are influenced by the local climate, geographic location and economic circumstances. If you live in a first world country, with high employment, a social network provided by the state and a high per capita income, this gives an individual economic freedom and choices, but they may also spend time and resources to maintain a certain social status and loose some of the family network.

2) Direct / indirect communication

Some countries, like Germany, the US or Scandinavia prefer a more direct communication style. To be straight and get to the point is appreciated, whereas in other countries this may be seen as impolite. However, even within these very direct countries, some people may not appreciate this style – in Germany they use the term ‘Mit der Tür ins Haus fallen’. (To tall with the door into the house)

So what does it mean to be direct in a country like Germany? It may mean that you are open and honest, trustworthy and are not wasting the other person’s time by ‘beating around the bush’. However, in a country that favours indirect communication, the same communication style may be viewed as rude, rushed and lacking the accepted social ‘niceties’.

Some people may also want to have more context first and see the bigger picture before they can move on to make a decision or take action. They may want to view things from all angles, rather than ‘rushing into something’.

When dealing with people who favour indirect communications, their direct counterparts may have to pay a lot more attention to what was meant rather than what was said. Does the yes mean a no, packaged in a way that should not be construed as rude. If you give an instruction, was it really understood? And when you receive feedback, was there something else hidden in that positive sounding message?

3) Humour & Self-Deprecation

In Britain, there’s humour everywhere. I often wonder, as I didn’t attend  school here, if it was a compulsory subject! Not English grammar, but how to use double entendres and how to make fun of things.

Humour is also used in situations where British people don’t feel comfortable – a quick joke can diffuse a situation. This can be misunderstood by people from other cultures, where it isn’t ‘normal’ to use humour in a business environment. They may view the person making a joke as somebody who is not serious about the task at hand. That doesn’t mean that they have no sense of humour, they’re just too tasked focused to get side tracked by humour.

If you’re using double entendres in English, you also need to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the language to quickly spot the opportunity for a witty remark.

Modesty in Britain is often expressed through self-deprecation. This may be problematic in countries such as the US, where it’s appreciated when people can sell themselves and their achievements. An understated and witty way to talk about ones experiences and track record may be completely misunderstood there.

Also beware that in some cultures they do not use irony, so they could both totally miss the message and the humour in it.

4) Language & Grammar

English is the recognised language of business, but as already outlined above – even between native English speakers there may be communication breakdowns. This could also be down to accents, slang or typical sayings. Does an American understand when a Brit wants to ‘discount a business opportunity’? Or what do both sides understand when we ‘table a topic’? And what is it with Americans wanting to ‘reach out’?

Then you have other countries embracing the English language and ‘tailoring’ it – the Germans made a ‘Handy’ out of a mobile phone and I recently came across the term ‘body leasing’ – you try and guess what’s meant with that one!

When doing business with non-native English speakers, the whole communication process becomes even more complicated. Non native English speakers learn English and reference it back to their own language. The structure and order is usually different. Some nationalities may sound extremely rude talking in English – but it may just be down to the grammatical structure of their own language and subsequent translation into English.

A recent study by Keith Chen of Yale University found that the German language and our ability to talk about the future in the present tense, enables us to save better as it’s a more immediate statement.

People may have a strong foreign accent. Even within Britain, a Londoner may not understand a Glaswegian. What if certain words don’t exist in your own languages and for example the sentence structure already communicates that you’re polite and therefore you don’t have a word for ‘please’. Does that mean that people have no manners? Even if English is the language of business, for some people it may be the fourth or fifth language that they learn..

How do you address your counterparts? In English, people are very informal – they use ‘you’ and first names. However, this may be considered rude in other countries where there is much more emphasis on formality and hierarchy. Another minefield is ‘politically correct’ language. Is something that’s politically correct in the UK the same as in Britain or South Africa or Australia?

5) Non-Verbal Communication

Just as you get to grips with indirectness, grammar and foreign languages, then there’s the all so important non-verbal communication. You just have to look at your pets to see how wrong they can get it – the dog wagging its tail will hardly get a similar response from a cat.

If somebody nods their head, do they mean they agree or that they have ‘heard you’? Does a smile mean somebody is friendly? Or are they embarrassed and don’t want to loose face?

Do you judge somebody by their handshake? How is a ‘proper’ handshake supposed to be? And do you kiss? Who do you kiss? And how many times? Where do you start? If you look somebody straight into the eyes, does that mean that you’re open and transparent or aggressive and disrespectful?

Some cultures are used to physical space between them, others don’t mind touching and being close. Are their differences between men and women in relation to how we can interact and where is body contact acceptable.

In some countries, it’s perfectly acceptable to speak very loudly. This may be seen as a nuisance somewhere else. If you’re upset or annoyed about something, should you show this and raise your voice or control your emotions? The sentence ‘This is an interesting proposal’ may have different meanings, dependent on the tone of your voice.

And last but not least, there’s silence. What does silence mean? Somebody has nothing more to say/contribute or are they reflecting on what’s been said, are they in agreement/disagreement?

Some more reading:
Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture