Published : May 10, 2019

Effective Communications Varies by Cultures

Much has been written about the etiquette of dealing with people of other cultures. Less well documented is the best way to communicate with others electronically.

Communication channels such as email, texting and social networking have changed the world forever. It’s a global world, particularly the business world. But, communication patterns, preferences and details vary greatly, particularly when it comes to conducting business across the globe.

For example, consider Canada, the United States and many western European countries. Business executives generally prefer to communicate electronically, by telephone and email. It’s quicker and more efficient; often they do not meet a foreign client or vendor in person. Patterns are different in Asia, particularly in Japan, which is as technologically sophisticated as any place in the world. Although changing, they still prefer to communicate face-to-face.

One reason, westerners like to get right to the point. People in some other cultures prefer to talk a bit and get to know a little about the people with whom they are doing business.

Understanding a few other issues about electronic communications and cultural differences can help make your international relationships successful. Email, for example, has many benefits and has become the correspondence of choice in much of the world. But, while writing an email seems fairly straightforward, there are many examples of executives from other cultures not understanding the intent or tone of a message, creating problems that need not occur.

Understanding cultural differences and perception issues fosters effective communications.

Non-verbal communications, how body language reflects your thoughts and attitudes, are important to clear communications, domestic as well as international. But, emails and telephone conversations cannot convey body language.

The words you use, written and verbal, should be based on how the message will be received and understood, and this requires an understanding of intercultural values.

Many of the same rules apply to video conferencing, an increasingly important vehicle for international communications.

Strive to make your message as deliberate and precise as possible.

Electronic communications, including email, can also be overdone.

It’s common, including in North America, to communicate by email frequently, sometimes to the same people throughout the day. In other cultures, this can be considered rude, distracting and disruptive to their own work patterns.

In addition, most executives schedule specific times to make important decisions, not discuss them throughout the day.

Here are a few additional guidelines:

  • Do some research ahead of time to better understand cultural habits, mores, and expectations
    A program such as the Berlitz Cultural Navigator® can help you understand all these issues, and others.
  • Double check the time zone in the country with which you are communicating.
    While it may seem like a given, time issues create more problems than you may think. This is particularly true since the workday varies among some cultures. For example, it’s not uncommon for people in some countries, including some in southern Europe, to take a two or three- hour break in the middle of the day. Interrupting this can get you started on the wrong foot.
  • Don’t use slang
    There’s a good chance, foreign readers and listeners won’t know what you’re saying, and may actually be offended.
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