We are all interacting with diverse people. Whether it is work colleagues from different ethnicities, religions, age, or people you have met online in these days of virtual connecting, you probably interact daily with people from different cultures.
You may think it is not difficult to communicate properly and powerfully across cultures. It is less difficult when you know what you are doing. The problem is that because culture is something so impervious, we do not think about it. We are mostly unaware of its impacts on our communication. If we are already not aware of the effects of our own culture, imagine how aware we may be of how communication is impacted in different cultures.
Getting in the way are also some beliefs about what it takes to communicate across cultures that are not helpful, sometimes right down incorrect. In this article, I am going to look at three of these myths and explain why these do not improve cross-cultural communication.
MYTH 1: Being empathetic is enough
Let me tell you it is not. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation (Cambridge dictionary). Being empathetic is very important. It allows you to build better relationships. When you show people you can relate to them and their feelings, they feel more understood and listened to. To achieve this, you need to be able to read the other person’s feelings and have a good grasp of their situation.
This can be mostly the case when you are dealing with people from your own culture. You know how to interpret the facial expressions and translate them into the feelings of the person. You probably can fathom the situation in which the person is in terms of cultural context.
Now, imagine having a similar conversation with somebody from a different culture. People in different cultures express their feelings differently and at different levels. If you don’t know this, how can you interpret these feelings. Likewise, you probably haven’t been in the situation that the person describes. If you try to interpret the situation with your own cultural standards, you will get it wrong.
You can see now that only being empathetic does not bring cultural competence and does not allow you on its own to communicate properly across cultures. Being nice will not be enough. This is because cultural competence when it comes to communication is a lot more than just about feelings. To put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, you need to understand what shoes they are wearing.
MYTH 2: Being a good communicator is enough
You have been told you are a great communicator? Well done to you. Communicating well is a required skills these days. When we are successful at communicating, it is easy to think that being a good communicator is something absolute: you are and that’s great or you are not, yet, and you need to improve on this.
Being a good communicator is not an absolute parameter. We all have learned some communication skills, usually from quite early on. We have picked up what people say, how they say it, found out what worked and replicate it. And there it is, we think we are good communicators.
In our own cultural context, that is correct. What we have learned is to answer your own culture’s expectations in terms of communication. The effectiveness of communication is context and culture dependent.
Now, interact with people from different cultures, with completely different cultures, with different expectations in terms of how they want to be addressed, how you are expected to say things and the non-verbal language you are supposed to use. Well, your great communication skills will likely fall flat. These people will not think you are a great communicator at all.
To communicate efficiently across cultures, you need to understand the various expectations and adapt your communication to each audience.
MYTH 3: We are all the same after all
This is actually a rather common myth and mistake. We try to bury differences under the similarities we share.
It is right that we all share some common needs: food, shelter, belonging, respect, fairness. How these needs will be exhibited and expressed in different cultures will vary widely.
We also tend to think that everybody is like us. Sayings along the lines “Don’t do to others what you would not want others to do to you” are an expression of this idea that we are similar. You can apply that to communication: “Don’t say to others what you would not want others to say to you.”. Do you really think everybody is like you?
If you base your communication on what you yourself expect, you are on the wrong path. Most people have different expectations and if you do not answer these expectations, your communication will go completely astray, creating misunderstandings, confusion, frustration, conflicts that could be avoided by getting culturally competent.
I will now let you ponder on these myths. Did you believe any of these before reading this piece?