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The ability to express your ideas in a clear way, as well as understand the needs of others, isn’t just important, but critical to any kind of collaborative work. Why is that? Well, Jimmy, I’m glad you asked. When you have business operations and customers all across the globe, it’s only through effective communication that you can run the darn whole over bloated project/thing with any sort of cohesion. However a ton of resources you may have, but they might as well be flushed down the can without effective communication.
Oh sure, the emergence of the Internet and modern technologies have made communication simpler. Whether you want to cyberstalk your ex girlfriend from Australia while being sitting homeless in a bus terminal in New York, or have a friendly chat with your colleague from China, there is a wide range of online apps that can come to the rescue. Having a business meeting with partners from another continent (even Antarctica) is no longer a luxury, you can just set up an event in Google Calendar and talk things over through a video call in Hangouts or Skype. That’s not even mentioning chatting apps, which allow you to be online 24/7.
However, despite all these amazing technological advancements, the problem of miscommunication persists, resulting in time and money losses. Seven years ago, New Jersey lost $200 million of its state budget simply because the responsible person didn’t bother to properly read the tax instruction forms.
“Well, at least nobody got hurt” — you may think. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Failing to reach mutual understanding can sometimes lead to fatal consequences. In 1977, two planes crashed in the Canary Islands because of miscommunication between the air traffic control tower and the captain of one of the Boeings. The crash took the lives of 583 people that day.
So why does this happen? It turns out that the reasons why people argue over seemingly frivolous things haven’t changed much over the past hundred of years, when we were still sending smoke signals to insult each other from a safe distance. Let’s break them down.
In the English language, we sometimes use the same word to mean different things. Lorry, jumper, pullover, rubber, and flat are all examples of words that have different meanings in English or that aren’t used from one country to the next.
Considering that people who speak the same language oftentimes fail to come to an agreement, just imagine the amount of communication challenges between two or more cultures. Now put this from a business perspective, and you’ll realize why this issue has been so widely debated in the recent years.
Aside from language specifics, there are other things such as body gestures and eye contact that you should consider when communicating with other cultures. Americans tend to wave their hand and use their pointer finger to point in directions. Extreme gesturing is considered rude in some cultures. On the one hand, pointing may be considered appropriate in some contexts in the United States. On the other hand, the Japanese would never use a finger to point towards another person because that gesture is considered rude in their homeland. Instead, they use an open hand, with a palm facing up, toward the person.
Eye contact is another form of nonverbal communication. In the U.S., eye contact is a good thing and is seen as a reflection of honesty and straightforwardness. However, in some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, prolonged eye contact can be seen as rude or aggressive in many situations. Women may need to avoid it altogether because lingering eye contact can be viewed as a greenlight for sexy time fun.
Unless done right, virtual communication too can become a nightmare. Dates, times, tasks, fees, statistics, email addresses or links can easily be misspelled. In most cases, things will get brutal between people before they realize a comma was missing. With email as the main tool for formal communication, it’s easy to drunkenly hit Send by mistake before the writing is done or before a proper proofreading of that telling your boss off. Once the mistake is in the system, it takes even more communication to get out of it.
Poor formatting. When verbal body language cues are absent, the way a message is formatted can suddenly become more important than usual. If a top tier manager sends a poorly formatted email, filled with incomplete sentences and bad grammar, the underlying message could be that he can’t be bothered with writing a proper email. Also, the recipients could start feeling they are not worthy of a polished text, because they apparently are not. So make sure your message is both grammatically and punctuationally correct before sending it to your clients. Here are a few tips that will help you minimize virtual miscommunication.
Always treat a virtual communication as if it’s a real one. Having jammed this tip into your mind, it will allow you to get rid of nasty prejudices. As a result, this will allow you to build effective communication. Empathy is equally important both for real and virtual communication, as it’s the main point for healthy and beneficial relationships.
The majority of people treat online conversations differently than a real one. Some people can say things that they would never able to say in being in same room with a person. We’re all people and miscommunication may happen. Let’s be patient and tolerant to each other.
“But there are so many countries and cultures! How do I separate them?”
There have been several attempts to clearly separate cultures according to their behavioral patterns. For example, Edward T. Hall, a famous anthropologist, suggested the concept of high-context and low-context cultures. In a nutshell, it describes the way of exchanging messages and the meaning of context in specific situations.
The best examples of low-context cultures are North America and Western Europe. As a rule, businesses in these regions have direct, individualistic employees who tend to base their decisions on facts. This type of person wants specifics noted in contracts and may have issues with trust.
High-context cultures are the opposite in that trust is the most important part of business dealings. There are areas in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that can be considered high context. Organizations that have high-context cultures are collectivist and focus on interpersonal relationships. Individuals from high-context cultures might be interested in getting to know the person they are conducting business with in order to get a gut feeling on decision making. They may also be more concerned about business teams and group success rather than individual achievement.
Robert Lewis, on the other hand, created a model which divides people into 3 categories: linear-active, multi-active, and reactive.
This category includes most of the English-speaking countries (North America, Australia, the UK, New Zealand, etc.), Northern Europe, and also Germanic countries. People who belong to this category tend to be task-oriented, organised planners. People from this category love direct discussions, facts and information from highly reliable sources.
Multi-active people belong to the impulsive type of people. People-orientation, relationship, and feelings are highly important for them. Such people try to speak and listen at the same time. They do their best to avoid silence or pause during the conversation.
This category of people can also be called as “category of true listeners”. Such people listen before leaping in the conversation. All the conversation they stay focused and don’t let their mind to wander. They do their best to understand the speaker’s point of view.
“Ok, but are there any general pieces of advice on how to avoid conflict situations?”
Here are some pieces of advice that should help you establish friendly contact with people from other nationalities or cultures.
- Try to avoid any jokes, critical statements or, more importantly, stereotypes. What you consider funny may in fact be inappropriate or even insulting to the other person. One frivolous word may ruin the whole thing before it even starts.
- Be patient and listen. Focus on the person’s intonation. This will give you an idea of how they’ll react to this or that news, events, people, etc. Based on this information, you’ll be able to understand where your views match and, thus, find suitable topics for discussion.
- Finally, always do your homework. It’s way easier to communicate with someone from a different culture when you have at least a basic understanding of their values, traditions, and customs. Find the article on wikipedia about the person’s country and try to remember the most crucial facts from its history. This will also allow you to avoid sensible subjects in politics (some people just love talking about it).
The Bottom Line
Effective communication is crucially important for achieving common goals and providing a mutual understanding. Especially when it’s about business. The most valuable tip for building an effective communication is to be respectful to each other. This will allow you to leave all parties involved satisfied and feeling accomplished. By expressing yourself explicitly, you’ll leave no room for alteration of messages or misunderstanding. As a result, this will contribute to decreasing conflicts. In case, a conflict did arise, effective communication will allow to ensure that the situation is resolved respectfully. One more time, an effective communication consists of 3 main parts: careful listening, mutual respect, and trying to put yourself on your opponent’s shoes. Combine them all and you’ll be amazed how it may change not only your business but also your life!