What do you do all the time when communicating that you may not be aware of? You interpret tone. By tone I mean the tonality and rhythm of the spoken and written word.
For example, have you ever noticed yourself reacting positively to what you interpret as a friendly, relaxed tone during a phone call or in an email? On the other hand, how do you react to what you interpret as a disrespectful or unfriendly tone? Even with longer documents, such as a report or a proposal, you also interpret and react. During a phone call or meeting you are also interpreting and responding to the tone others are using. That interpretation may then alter what you say and how you say it.
Interpreting and reacting to tone is a major part of any communication in any language and in any culture. However, rarely do we question if how we have interpreted the tone is accurate. If challenged, we tend to defend our interpretation. Within our own cultures, that may be justified. However, when cultures mix, who has the “right” interpretation of tone? How is the tone of a French person speaking English interpreted by a German? Or the tone of an Albanian writing an email in English interpreted by a French reader?
Tonalities vary even among Anglophones. How is the tone of an Australian speaker interpreted by a Canadian? How is the tone of a British email interpreted by an American? As a Canadian, I cannot adopt the tone of a British, American or Australian speaker or writer, nor can I accurately interpret what their tone means.
Practice Ignoring Tone
Within intercultural contexts using English as a common language, it is a waste of everyone’s time when communicating to interpret tone and justify the interpretation of tone.
I suggest that you save yourself time and upset by learning to treat tone like intercultural Muzak. Muzak is a word used for the music that plays continually in the background of supermarkets, which we all totally ignore. Within your intercultural business context there are many different tones of English playing in the background. My recommendation is to ignore tone and instead focus on content. That means you will focus on what others are saying, instead of how they are saying it. If you practice this, you will discover what a positive difference that can make on a daily basis.
Practice Ignoring Body Language
While I am aware that there are many theories about how to interpret body language, experience has shown me that such theories are not reliable when working across cultures. When you believe that your interpretation of body language based on your own culture is the “right” one, you run the risk of misinterpreting the gesture and eye contact signals of people from other cultures. Admittedly, for the purposes of protocol it can be appropriate to learn to imitate the outward form of another culture’s body language; for example, by bowing in greeting when you are in Japan.
However, the use of facial expressions and physical gestures is extremely complex and subtle in every culture. Just because in your own culture you have the ability to read those signals correctly when communicating, does not mean you are competent to read the body language of cultures you barely know.
Practice Intercultural Wisdom
Knowing what you do not know is a sign of wisdom, according to the Greek philosopher Socrates. In the same way, intercultural wisdom is knowing what you do not know about other cultures. So being aware that you will never know how to accurately interpret the vocal tonality or body language signals of other cultures will make you a better, more impartial communicator when working across cultures.