Bridging the Gaps in a Cross-Cultural Conversation

Having a Conversation

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who later revealed that their experience of that conversation was totally different than yours?

Maybe you entered a meeting with a new employee. Thinking that starting the meeting with small talk might seem unprofessional, you got straight into describing a new project and assigning tasks. Your employee, accustomed to a more casual conference approach, mistook your straightforwardness as dislike toward him. Once he got to know you, he discovered this wasn’t your intention at all.

This isn’t uncommon. We sometimes attribute a mismatch in communication to a gender, age, or social differences. When differences in culture enter the picture, however, having a conversation can be even more complex, and the consequences of a misunderstanding harder to ease.

The “Right Way” to Converse

At the same time as we focus on what brings us together, it’s important to talk to someone from a different culture knowing a little bit about how they may understand the conversation differently than you.

Let’s look at what is typical in a few countries. In the US, conversations are typically viewed as an opportunity to exchange information. But in Mexico, the foremost goal of a conversation is, commonly, to build the relationship between talking partners.

A professional interaction in Germany is one that leaves no room for misinterpretation. The Japanese use subtlety, general statements, and broader references in a polite exchange on a sensitive topic.

What’s in a Difficult Conversation?

These “communication trip wires” — the ways social norms surrounding difficult conversations vary from culture to culture — are organized into four categories in “Having a Difficult Conversation with Someone from a Different Culture” by Melissa Hahn and Andy Molinsky:

  • Getting Down to Business vs. Relationship Building: what is the primary goal of a conversation?
  • Direct vs. Indirect Communication: how is sensitive information most respectfully communicated to someone else?
  • Low vs. High Context: do the environment and social differences between conversation partners impact the way a message is interpreted?
  • Informality vs. Formality: does emphasizing casualness of a meeting diffuse tension, or some across as incompetence or unpreparedness?

Hahn and Molinsky go on to describe these differences in useful detail. “When you think of it this way, having a difficult conversation with someone from another culture can appear perilous — and it can be. So, what can you do about it?”

Enjoy the rest of their insight and discussion here: Read More

Do Your Part

Our Build Cultural Awareness Initiative provides opportunities to learn about other cultures, faiths, and people of different backgrounds. Get started doing your part today:

  • Check out more of our posts about Building Cultural Awareness. Read, watch, and learn about the #BuildCulturalAwareness topic.
  • Engage your family, friends, and colleagues in meaningful conversations. Ask someone else to join the discussion so you can make new friends and learn from their experiences.
  • Share your ideas, photos, related stories, and facts about your culture or something you’ve learned about another.

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