Living and working abroad, we all have at some point complained about our hosts: “Why don’t they get it? Why can’t they follow my clear instructions? Why don’t they tell me when they don’t understand?”
But what if communicating effectively across cultures was a dynamic process? What if it was up to us to make it work?
Twenty years ago when my husband and I decided to get married, I was next to the worst thing that could happen to my Taiwanese parents-in-law. For them, seeing their eldest son marry a French person who hadn’t any clue about how things were done in a Taiwanese family couldn’t have been good news.
Indeed, the first few years brought a lot of frustrations on both sides. However, there was one thing I always kept in mind: it had been my choice to come to Taiwan, not their choice to end up with a French daughter-in-law. Hence, I was responsible for making the relationship work.
A similar mindset can be extremely useful to a foreigner coming to work in Malaysia as well as to a Malaysian employee who decides to work for a foreign company.
Misunderstandings and miscommunication among people are the cause of costly expenses for businesses. In a multicultural setting, overcoming cultural barriers is the first step to effective communication. Communicating effectively requires common sense. Yet we easily stray from common sense, mostly because we become emotional when people around us fail to see our values as universal values.
Over the years I have used this 3-step strategy to stay on the right track: Connect, Balance, Perform.
First I needed to know what communicating meant to my parents-in-law. It soon became obvious to me that spouting off what I had in mind and telling them how my way was better was not the most effective approach.
It mostly resulted in them smiling at me (leading me to believe that I had made my point) and running to my husband, sometimes puzzled but more often than not, outraged at my behaviour.
Communication between us was non-existent.
I had to learn patience and humility. Instead of reacting to behaviour that I found not acceptable from my cultural point of view, I started questioning it. I was ready to accept almost anything as long as it was explained to me. I wouldn’t settle for: ”because that’s the way we do it”!
This was essential in building trust and the relationship: I learnt a lot through their answers and at the same time they got to know me better through my questions and reactions.
Humility became my best ally as a French woman entering an Asian environment.
Asian societies, such as in Taiwan and Malaysia, tend to be more hierarchical, more collectivist than European societies. In such societies, everyone has a clear position/status.This is not only about your job title; it also takes into account other aspects of your identity such as your age, family and educational background. As a foreigner you might not at once understand what your real position is. Being humble enables you to position yourself at the right level in society. Knowing one’s place is essential to establish trust, and to communicate using the proper language, code and protocol.
This is a concept well understood by all Malaysian employees but that might not help them much in a European company. As much as it is important for foreigners to understand the Malaysian context, it is as essential for Malaysians to understand how their foreign company functions and what are the values that matter to them. Being too humble in a European context can be mistaken for a lack of opinion and confidence.
Connecting is the ability to look at the world through different pairs of glasses, to decipher your environment and the capacity to build rapport and trust by adapting your mode of communication.
Communicating across cultures is not a one-way road. It is about being understood as much as it is about understanding.
A side effect of my efforts to better understand my family in-law was that it reinforced some of my own values.
I said earlier that if things were explained to me, I could accept everything. Well …almost everything. As an atheist coming from a secular country, accepting the place of religion in social and public life was very difficult for me. In Malaysia the place of religion is even more predominant in social life than it is in Taiwan. Many Malaysians know France as the country that banned wearing headscarf in schools. This is an issue I often have had to discuss with Malaysian friends. This has forced me to look at where my assumptions came from, and to explain the issue in a sensitive and sensible manner, clear and intelligible, to my Malaysian audience.
This again can be applied in the corporate world. It is actually a very good exercise to “deconstruct” your own culture and stop taking anything for granted. If you want your Malaysian colleagues and staff to understand your corporate values which are strongly rooted in the national culture of the head office, you need to explain them using different concepts and approaches relevant to your audiences, so that they make sense and become understandable to your Malaysian team.
Balancing is the ability to “switch modes”: act and express yourself in a manner that is acceptable to another culture, while remaining true to your own values.
One wonderful and disconcerting aspect of living across cultures is that you can never take anything for granted. Often it is when you think you finally get it is when it all goes wrong!
After eight years spent in Taiwan our family moved to Europe, closer to my family. A whole new set of issues surfaced when my husband had to deal with the French way of doing things.
For our marriage to work, understanding each other as well as each other’s family and culture has been essential to detecting potential sources of conflict and misunderstandings, and to prevent them from happening before they occur.
By doing so we created a new family culture. It is neither French nor Taiwanese, but it incorporates aspects of both cultures and it works when all of us are together.
This highlights another essential aspect of success: the ability to engage others to follow our footsteps. To make our endeavour a success not only did my husband and I have to create a new path, but we had to engage both of our families on this journey.
In the same manner, it is important for international teams to spend time to understand each other, to explain where each member is coming from and to invent new rules and working practices that fit a particular team.
In the corporate world, developing your cultural competencies will enable you to become a real mediator for people around you. You will be an asset to building successful and effective multicultural teams. You will be able to anticipate conflicts, foster synergy, encourage better dialogue within your team and make the most of people’s skills.
The ability to turn hurdles into opportunities will pave the road to comfort and success for you and your team.
To conclude- I found out about cultural competences the hard way. Twenty years and a happy marriage later, I wish I had figured out a good strategy earlier.
Back then, the work on cross-cultural communication was in its infancy and people going to work and live abroad had to rely on their own devices and personality to make things work. And it didn’t always work!
Since then, many scholars and trainers have studied the mechanisms of cross-cultural encounters. The literature on working and living in a multicultural environment has grown exponentially over the past fifteen years.
International companies realise the importance of cultural intelligence to choose employees for international assignments. When Human Resources used to focus on emotional intelligence, they now understand that this is not sufficient once you go across borders and that cross-cultural skills also need to be developed.
The good news is that cultural competences are skills that can be trained. The more exposed to other cultures you are, the better you get, but there are also shortcuts to become proficient faster. With the world becoming closer and smaller, this is a lifelong journey that we must embark on.