How to Improve Your Intercultural Communication Skills

Illustration of various people from different countries speaking different languages

Every advancement in technology, communication and transportation has made it easier for companies to go global. Businesses take on international partners, open satellite locations in other countries, and hire an increasingly multicultural workforce. While language barriers are an obvious hurdle, many people don't realise the vast array of cultural differences that can make workplace interactions even uncomfortable.

These interactions can also be extremely rewarding. Aside from the personal benefit of meeting interesting people, learning about other cultures and how to communicate more effectively, working with a diverse group also contributes to the success of the company you work for. In fact, a recent McKinsey study revealed that businesses with a culturally diverse management team had a 33% increase in profitability.

The benefits only become possible, however, if you improve your intercultural communication skills. We've created this quick guide to help you through that process.

1. Take the time to learn

None of us is born an expert at interacting with global business partners and multicultural colleagues. The only way to improve your intercultural communication skills is the same way you master any professional skill, by taking the time to study and learn it.

Do your research

Whether you'll be meeting with executives from the Tokyo office or visiting a partner company in Oslo, it makes sense to prepare ahead of time. Just as you gather important data and talking points for the meeting, do your due diligence on the business and social customs of the people you'll be speaking with. Non-verbal communication is equally important. Something as simple as a greeting or a handshake can be done differently in another culture and getting it wrong could affect your visit right at the start.

Ask questions

The easiest way to avoid miscommunication or offence is to ask questions of the people you're working with. The key is to be respectful and show genuine interest. Your willingness to understand and get things right about a person's culture shows that you value what's important to them. Even if you make a mistake later, the goodwill you've built by trying to learn will help you overcome the issue.

Observe and listen actively

This method not only allows you to deal with conflict in the workplace but also avoid it in the first place. When working with colleagues from a different culture, observe how they interact with each other. Listen to how they approach problems and collaborate on projects. Watch for their reactions to different communication styles. Don't just look for differences, finding common ground can be a great way for you to begin your own interactions with your co-workers.

Learn the language

Obviously, you needn't sign up for a language course to communicate with every person on your team. A few key phrases, including greetings and thanks, can go a long way to showing you're paying attention and want to engage with colleagues in a more personal way. Most importantly, learn how to pronounce everyone's name correctly. Imagine your name is Bob, and every day at work your co-workers call you John. Mangling someone's name because the language isn't familiar to you can be seen as just as insensitive. Once again, politely ask the person if you're unsure what the proper pronunciation is. They'll appreciate you making an effort to get it right.

2. Practise self-awareness

When you’re trying to perfect intercultural communication skills, the focus shouldn't just be on the people you'll be working with. It’s essential to examine your point of view, cultural background and any potential bias you may have. Debbie Narver, an author and an expert in cross-cultural team performance, advises every person to consider their own ethnocentrism. How you were raised to function in society creates a lens through which you view everything. Even as we consciously attempt to avoid overt stereotypes and bias, ‘we may still be operating from a particular belief system which unconsciously rejects different perspectives.’

Ditch your assumptions

One of the first steps to developing cultural awareness is to challenge your assumptions about an entire group of people. Why do you expect your new French business partners to negotiate a certain way, or be more affectionate with colleagues, or value a formal dress code? You may not even realize that your knowledge of another country is based entirely on unreliable sources. Remember that people are also individuals. While two co-workers may share a common background and social customs, don't automatically assume they will have the same views, behaviour or working style.

Avoid a superiority complex

As you're making an effort to understand other cultures, remember to treat those cultures as equal to your own. Everyone is tempted to consider their own way of doing things as superior. Still, you'll learn a lot more if you open your mind to the possibility that your colleagues may have learned a better way of doing things, or at least one with equal merit.

Watch your language

When communicating with people of the same background, we often lapse into shorthand, idioms and jargon. Just as internet slang like 'AFK' (away from keyboard) and 'TL;DR' (too Long; didn't read) can baffle readers, phrases like 'back to the drawing board' or 'burn the midnight oil' can confuse non-native English speakers who translate the sentences literally. Be especially aware of long-established phrases that could even be deemed offensive. A business consultant who once said 'we have too many Chiefs and not enough Indians', in a meeting that included Indigenous people learned that lesson quite painfully. It can be tough at first to abandon colloquialisms you've known for years, but once you start paying attention, it will become easier to catch yourself.

3. Seek assistance

Many companies, from start-ups to corporations with thousands of employees, have gone global with their business. They are also increasingly hiring multicultural staff. While there are many actions you can take on your own to improve your intercultural communication skills, it can be beneficial to seek assistance from those who already have experience.

Try diversity training

Many organisations offer both online and in-person intercultural training options for individuals and companies. If you are part of the decision-making team for choosing a workplace programme, look for something more in-depth than a cursory cultural etiquette course. For example, Berlitz offers specific training for 'the six levels of culture that impact people's work-style preferences: National, Social Identity Group, Organizational, Functional (e.g. IT vs Marketing) and Team'.

Create multicultural teams

It’s much easier to be sensitive to the workplace styles of different cultures if you include people of different cultures in decision-making. Listening to other perspectives and valuing each person's contribution is an essential way to improve your teamwork skills as well as your intercultural communication skills. Whether it's a hiring committee, the planning stages of a new project, or a marketing meeting, a diverse group can make better decisions for the company as a whole.

Use social media

One of the most significant aspects of social media is the opportunity it provides for connecting people all over the world. Online communities are formed by shared business and social interests, and those shared interests form a common ground for users from a vast array of backgrounds. This can be an excellent resource for learning about other cultures in a more informal and organic way. The friendships you make can also offer you a more comfortable platform to ask questions about social norms, values and more, without the pressure of a business setting.

4. Incorporate what you've learned

Doing research, observing others and taking diversity training are all significant steps toward improving your intercultural communication skills. Your ultimate goal is to put all of that knowledge into practice. Incorporating what you've learned into your attitude, behaviour and actions will help you communicate more effectively and collaborate more productively. Excelling in these areas will help you succeed at work and advance in your career.

A few final tips:

  • Respect: Whether you're visiting another country, listening to a colleague's alternate perspective or asking questions about another culture, always remember to show respect.
  • Socialising– Don't forget the more social aspects of business, like drinks after work or holiday dinners. Some cultures may have different attitudes toward alcohol, have religious dietary restrictions, or other issues with what you might think are universal social customs. Do your best to include everyone.
  • Jokes: Having a sense of humour about awkward interactions or misunderstandings can definitely help diffuse any tension or offence. Joking around with colleagues is one of the joys of work and a necessary skill for great leaders, but be careful not to get carried away. Singling out one person repeatedly for their differences, no matter how harmlessly intentioned, can make that person feel isolated and uncomfortable.
  • Adapting: Just as you would adjust your conversation style when speaking with a close friend, your grandparents or an authority figure, try interacting with colleagues in their preferred style. As noted by Forbes, people from different cultures may vary in how fast they speak, how strongly they argue, and even how they view silences in conversation. Adapting to their methods will make communication more natural and effective.

We hope this handy guide on improving intercultural communication skills is useful in making your workplace interactions more enjoyable and productive.

Which do you think is the most valuable aspect of honing these skills? What actions have you taken to interact with your colleagues of different backgrounds? Join the discussion below and let us know!

This article is an updates version of an earlier article that was originally published in September 2014.