How to Avoid Business Errors When Communicating Across Cultures

communicating across cultures

Effectively communicating across cultures is one of the biggest challenges for companies scaling globally. Overcoming language barriers is just the first step. Differences in communication styles, etiquette rules, and social customs can cause misunderstandings that damage professional relationships and cost your business revenue.

Like most aspects of running a business, effective communication across cultures is a skill best honed through experience and practice. The more you interact with individuals from other cultures, the better you’ll be able to navigate the potential pitfalls of doing business across national and cultural borders.

Finding low-pressure ways to practice your cross-cultural communication first can be a big help, but that’s not always possible in the real world. If you’re looking for ways to improve your communication with other cultures, follow these 6 tips.

If You Have Questions, Ask Them

There is no such thing as a stupid question when you’re communicating across cultures. If something you said was confusing to the listener, you need to know so you can clarify your meaning. The same goes the other way. Asking questions is the best way to make sure you understand exactly what the other person is trying to say, therefore, avoiding miscommunications.

How you ask questions can be important, too. Focus on your lack of understanding and avoid phrasings that could be taken as a critique of the other person’s communication ability. Some good ways to ask for clarification would be:

  • I’m not sure I understand… … …, can you explain it to me in a different way?
  • If I understand correctly, you’re saying… … … Is that right?
  • I’m interested in what you said about… … … Could you tell me more?
  • I want to make sure we’re on the same page. What is your understanding of… … …?

Whenever possible, ask open-ended questions as opposed to those with a yes/no answer. Asking something like “Do you understand?” can lead to further confusion if their understanding is different than your meaning.

Don’t Make Assumptions (Especially Negative Ones)

It can be difficult to determine the intentions behind someone’s words even when you share a culture; that gets even harder when you’re working across cultural borders.

Communication styles differ across cultures. German-speaking cultures are more direct, for example, which can come across as blunt or even insulting to those accustomed to more subtlety and subtext.

If someone does or says something that seems rude or offensive, give them the benefit of the doubt. It could be a difference in cultural expectations or a simple mistranslation. Over-reacting will only compound the misunderstanding and could damage the relationship.

Avoid Cultural Comparisons

The culture you grew up with is your established frame of reference, so it’s natural to make sense of the world by comparing things to what you know.

What you want to avoid are value judgments about different cultures, especially if you’re pointing out ways your culture does things “better”. This could offend people, for one thing, and it limits your ability to truly understand the other culture when you enter the interaction with these kinds of pre-conceptions.

Learn as Much as You Can About the Culture

Afshan Abbas pivoted from a career in software engineering to start a business selling shoes handcrafted by artisans in Pakistan. This meant learning a new industry while she navigated a new culture. The first step to overcoming both of these challenges was the same: she did her research.

Research isn’t a substitute for immersion if your goal is to gain a deep understanding of the culture, but it can give you baseline knowledge to build from and keep you from committing a serious faux pas out of ignorance.

The best way to learn about another culture is to talk to someone who’s lived it. Another great option is to consume media produced by the culture. Watch some movies, TV, and sports that are popular in the culture, or read books and periodicals published in the country. Nonfiction books written about the culture can be helpful, too, just make sure the advice is coming from someone with first-hand experience.

Avoid Slang and Jargon

It doesn’t take a language barrier to lead to cultural misunderstandings. These can have different meanings even between dialects or regions that speak the same language, and those differences are amplified when an individual communicates in a non-native tongue.

Issues like this become even more relevant in our remote world as many companies are using webinar platforms to communicate regularly with customers and other areas of the organization.

The best vocabulary for cross-cultural communication is simple, straightforward, and universal. Industry-specific jargon may traverse cultural boundaries, but it’s always smart to double-check rather than assuming comprehension.

Seek Out Professional Translation Services

The most significant hurdle when doing business with international clients is typically the language barrier. While machine translation services such as Google Translate can be useful tools in a pinch, relying on them too much can result in misunderstandings. The best way to avoid this is to hire an experienced professional translation service. Seek out a translation service provider that specializes in translation for your sector, as well as the relevant language pairs, for example, English to Spanish.

Your company’s translation needs may be varied. For instance, sometimes you may require the translation of email correspondence and meeting minutes while on other occasions you might need public-facing content, such as a product’s instruction manual, to be translated. Your translation agency will ensure that each project is managed by the appropriate translator and project manager.

The Bottom Line When Communicating Across Cultures

Cultural misunderstandings can happen even when both parties are experienced communicators. If you think there’s been a communication breakdown, don’t let frustration or embarrassment make the situation worse. Just step back, take a deep breath, and find out where things went awry. With a bit of patience and diligence, anyone can be an effective multicultural communicator.

Seeking a high-quality translation service provider to assist your international business relations? Our friendly team at BeTranslated, which consists of skilled linguists and efficient project managers, will be happy to help. We specialize in a broad range of sectors from legal translations to subtitle translations. Get in touch today for more information or a free, no-obligation quote.