Sherwood Fleming's Intercultural Communication Insights http://sherwoodfleming.com Sat, 05 Nov 2016 13:36:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Requesting and Promising Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/requesting-promising-cultures/ Sat, 05 Nov 2016 13:03:27 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3648 In the previous four articles I encouraged you to explore intercultural trust from a variety of angles. I suggested specific actions you could take to cultivate, evaluate and inspire intercultural trust. This fifth and final article on trust is about how to ensure you are making clear requests and promises. The foundation on which trust is built or broken is...read more →

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In the previous four articles I encouraged you to explore intercultural trust from a variety of angles. I suggested specific actions you could take to cultivate, evaluate and inspire intercultural trust. This fifth and final article on trust is about how to ensure you are making clear requests and promises.

The foundation on which trust is built or broken is the speech act of promises. Cultures have varying degrees of rigor about the consequences of broken promises. However, regardless of your culture, the expectation is that if a promise is made it will be kept. While that seems straightforward enough, several problems arise when working across cultures. One is that opinions about whether a promise was completed satisfactorily, or not, vary between cultures. Another problem is that sometimes a promise is listened when a promise was never actually made.

The Basic Elements of a Complete and Clear Request

Before examining those issues, let’s begin by looking at the components of a complete and clear request that results in a clear promise.

  • The person making the request wants or needs something.
  • He or she has the opinion that the person they are asking is capable of fulfilling his or her request.
  • It is the responsibility of the person making the request to include specifics of who, what, where, when and how the request is to be fulfilled.
  • It is also the responsibility of the person making the request to add any other additional standards that may not be obvious to the person they are asking.
  • It is the responsibility of the person being asked to assess whether they can fulfill the request. Based on that they either accept or decline. Accepting binds the listener to fulfilling the promise. Another alternative for the listener is to make a counteroffer. By that I mean, the listener offers alternative conditions than the ones that were requested. Then acceptance of the counter-offer by the person making the request binds the listener to fulfilling his or her promise.

Are Your Requests this Complete?

I’ll provide a simple example to demonstrate these four components of a complete and clear request and promise.

A person who is chairing a meeting in English asks another person attending the meeting to take notes for him. He assesses that this person, who is new to the intercultural team, has the best English as a second language skills, and so chooses him to take notes. The chairman specifies that each person be named each time they speak and that what he or she says is recorded in as much detail as possible. He also asks that the person transcribe those notes using a particular Microsoft Word document format that he will provide at the end of the meeting. The transcription is to be completed and sent to him by email before 4 pm that day. He also requests that it be spell checked, contain no partial sentences or bullet points and be written in simple English. He also tells the person that if they do not feel up to the task they are free to decline and he will ask someone else.

The person being asked says, “Yes, I will gladly write the meeting report if I can have until tomorrow morning at 9 am.” The chairman says yes to that alternative deadline. At that point a binding promise has been clearly made between them. In such a scenario there is little possibility for miscommunication due to lack of clarity.

How does this example sound to you? When was the last time you heard such a clear and complete request, followed by a clearly stated option to decline and finally a counter-offer? Mostly such requests are made this way: “Can you please take notes at the meeting and get them to me ASAP?” To which the listener responds, “Sure, no problem.”

What Is the Problem With Incomplete Requests?

There are several things wrong with such an incomplete and unclear request and promise. With no specific direction of what standards for ‘taking notes’ the speaker has in mind, the person saying ‘yes’ does not really know what they are promising to do. Will they use the same format as the one that is expected? Are they competent to be able to take the detailed notes that are expected? Are they competent to write the report in full sentences, in simple English? Do they have a full load of other work to do that makes it impossible to deliver the notes quickly? Besides, what ‘ASAP’ means varies wildly between cultures. To North Americans it means right away. To other cultures it can mean many hours or even days. When cultures mix, they all bring their own standards to business communications and to what short deadlines mean.

When none of those parameters are explicitly stated, and the notes do not meet the requestor’s expectations of what, where, when and how, who will be held responsible? In fact, we rarely hold the requestor responsible. We usually blame the person making the promise for ‘not keeping their promise.’ So even if the notes are delivered in a timely manner and meet the promisor’s standards, this will often be considered as ‘not soon enough’ or ‘not good enough’ by the requestor. Then he or she may fall into the linguistic trap of generalizing: “I can’t trust this person to do a good job.”

Another thing to be aware of is that within certain cultures it is considered inappropriate to decline directly by saying ‘no.’ In some cultures, ‘yes’ is actually employed to mean ‘I understand your request’ rather than ‘I will fulfill it.’ In such a case there is even more confusion and mistrust. The requestor insists he heard a promise. The other person insists no promise was ever made. Also, if the person being asked does not feel competent to fulfill the task and yet does not feel free to decline, it is really a no-trust situation for everyone concerned.

Establishing Standards for Requests and Promises Saves Time and Builds Intercultural Trust

When I introduce the topic of making clear requests and promises in such a detailed way during my seminars, I get two predictable objections. One is: “But Sherwood, how much extra time will it take to say all that, or write all that, every time I want someone to do something for me?” The fact is that you can actually save time. How much time do you think is wasted in business every day by people having to redo work that is not ‘up to standards’? But whose standards? And were those standards ever clearly defined?

Also, what I see repeatedly when people make requests and promises by email, is that two, three or even more emails are exchanged to determine who, what, where and when. Unfortunately, even with multiple emails, clarifying standards is rarely addressed. If all that had been included in the first email, how much time would that alone have saved?

Another objection I hear is: “Don’t you run of the risk of insulting the listener by including all that detail?” I know that in some cultures stating what is obvious is not well regarded. People from such cultures may be inclined to take this as a personal affront of some kind. However, that can be avoided if within your intercultural business context you establish the criteria for making clear requests and promises, which everyone follows. Then no one can interpret this form of requesting and promising as a commentary on them personally. Besides, by establishing common standards everyone knows exactly what to do and all involved are asked to adapt equally.

I want to add that what I have suggested here is not a standard Anglophone way of making requests and promises. Indeed, native English speakers have as much to learn about making clear requests and promises within intercultural business contexts as everyone else.

In short, taking the time up front to establish standards for making requests and promises within a team or department, or even company-wide, is not only efficient but helps build trust. People request and promise with more clarity and confidence, and experience less fear and frustration.

A client recently told me a story about how she had to redo a PowerPoint presentation three times because the person requesting it did not spell out exactly what she wanted the first or second time. Only by the third time was it clear what exactly what was required and expected of her, based on the cultural standards of the person making the request. She had had this experience repeatedly with this particular manager, and she felt extremely frustrated and hadn’t known what to do about it. Perhaps you have encountered similar situations at work. I hear such stories often. Here’s my perspective on it, which emphasizes our human similarities, rather than our cultural differences.

What All Cultures Share in Common

Thanks to my seminars and business consulting in Canada and France, involving thousands of people from a variety of cultures and languages, I have noticed things that many of us share in common. For example, we believe that our way of conducting business communications (i.e. meetings, reports, presentations, emails etc.) is the ‘right’ way. We also believe that how we make requests and promises is the ‘right’ way to request and promise. Our expectation is that people from other cultures know what that way is. And when they do it ‘wrong,’ who do we blame? We sometimes blame ourselves but we all have a tendency to blame others for breakdowns in communication. We blame others for not adapting to our way of doing things. We accuse others of being incompetent. We generalize that others cannot be trusted. I have seen these linguistic tendencies repeatedly with clients and seminar participants in multiple languages.

I am not saying we all do this deliberately or with malicious intent. Indeed, most of us of are not even aware of what we are doing in the domain of communication. We all have what I call intercultural communication blind spots. In my seminars about communicating across cultures I devote several hours, and six individual and group exercises, to help participants master requests and promises for their particular intercultural business context. Obviously, I can’t replicate all that in this article. However, here are some simple suggestions to get you started.

Revisit How You Make Requests and Promises

Rather than blame someone for not fulfilling a request ‘your’ way, instead ask yourself, “Have I been as clear and complete in my request as I could have been?” Also, when you are wrongly accused of not keeping your promise or not meeting the person’s expectations, ask yourself, “Did I ask all the questions necessary to be clear about what was expected of me before I said yes? Did I know I wasn’t competent to do what was being asked of me but did not feel free to say no? Could I have made a counter-offer that would have made it easier for me to keep my promise?”

Both when requesting and when promising you can take greater responsibility for clarity. You can learn from your miscommunications and commit to practicing how to make more complete and clearer requests and promises in the future.

The fact is, few of us, in any culture, have been taught how to make clear requests and promises. However, because within our native cultures and languages we share similar standard practices, requesting and promising seems easier. Therefore, none of us are in the habit of being as specific as we need to be when communicating across cultures. These are habits we can build individually or collectively by practicing to request and promise more clearly in order to deepen intercultural trust.

There is nothing to lose and lots to gain by improving our skills in these two pivotal speech acts of requests and promises. I am convinced that without the understanding that comes from clarity, there can be no genuine trust. And without trust there is no future, since we build our future together in the requests and promises we exchange today.

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Build Trust Across Cultures by Keeping Your Promises http://sherwoodfleming.com/build-trust-keeping-promises/ Sat, 05 Nov 2016 10:03:11 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3643 People typically agree that keeping your promises is always the ‘right’ thing to do. However, everyone falls short of this in practice. I will recommend to you what I recommend to my clients who work across cultures — keep your promises to everyone 100% of the time to build trust. I can already hear you objecting, as my clients often...read more →

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People typically agree that keeping your promises is always the ‘right’ thing to do. However, everyone falls short of this in practice. I will recommend to you what I recommend to my clients who work across cultures — keep your promises to everyone 100% of the time to build trust. I can already hear you objecting, as my clients often do: “But Sherwood, you are being unrealistic. In spite of my best intentions, there are simply times that it is not possible to keep a promise.” When clients say that, I ask them to give me examples of when it is okay to break their promise. I have a long list of such situations that I have collected over the years. Here are just a few:

  • When it is no longer convenient to keep the promise.
  • When you find you have made too many promises to colleagues and clients, and you now have to prioritize, based on what broken promise will have the least negative consequences to you or your company.
  • When you are dealing with colleagues or clients who don’t keep their promises to you, so you feel justified to act the same way in return.

Why Do You Break Promises?

My intent is not to criticize you or my clients for not keeping promises. Instead, I want to point out that one of the intercultural blind spots shared by all cultures is that there is one standard we apply to ourselves and a different standard that we apply to others. On the one hand, we sincerely believe that we are good at keeping our promises. On the other hand, we are convinced that others are constantly disappointing us by not keeping theirs. But all of us, from any culture, constantly break our promises for all kinds of reasons which to us are justifiable. So clearly everyone needs practice.

There are two things to practice here. One is to minimize the number of times you break your promises. Aim for 100% perfection; even if you never achieve that, trying will make you more accountable for what the ‘real’ reasons to break a promise are, and which ones don’t count.

A second thing to practice is to be more accepting of others when they break their promises. I encourage you to not even request a reason when someone breaks a promise to you. What practical purpose do reasons serve? Do they change our behavior? No. Do they really excuse our breach of a promise? No again. Rather than reasons, I recommend offering remedial action when you break a promise. Here is what I mean by that:

  • Acknowledge honestly that you realize that you are breaking a promise and apologize sincerely.
  • Acknowledge that you realize that this has created an inconvenience for the other person, which is unacceptable.
  • Therefore, you end by offering something of value to the person as compensation for breaking your promise and inconveniencing them.

For example, you could write a letter or email of apology, and include a free company product or service as compensation for any inconvenience it has caused your colleague or client.  Of course, offering compensation does not mean that the other person is not justified in being disappointed or angry. Rather, the offer is simply a sincere intent to compensate for any damages, however minor, to the other person. I recommend this approach even if you are renegotiating to fulfill the promise at a future date. Do not expect people to be understanding or forgiving. They may be, but you simply make things worse by getting angry at people that you broke a promise to when they won’t forgive you.

On the other hand, if someone breaks a promise to you, then practice being understanding and forgiving. Isn’t that what you expect in the same situation? Then why not give that freely to others?

How You Deal with Promises Impacts on Your Identity

So why is all this important? Because the identity you build in the world of business is largely constructed on how much others can count on you to do what we say you will do. And while no one can force you to keep your promises, you can develop a rigor about keeping promises that few people possess. You can also develop an acceptance of broken promises that is equally rare.

A promises is the most powerful exchange of words there is. Everything in our world has at its root a promise made and kept. Imagine if everyone kept their promises all the time. While that sounds like an unattainable vision, the amount of time and resources we would save, and the volatile emotions and mistrust we would eliminate, would be extraordinary. Each of us can play our part by practicing regularly in small but meaningful ways.

In the next article, which is the last one in my five-part series on intercultural trust, I will show you how to ensure that you make clear promises when working across cultures.

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How to Inspire Intercultural Trust http://sherwoodfleming.com/inspire-intercultural-trust/ Sat, 05 Nov 2016 09:56:01 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3641 As I pointed out in the previous article about evaluating intercultural mistrust, we have double standards with regards to trust. We expect others to trust us automatically, even when we are not willing to trust others automatically ourselves. When stated so directly, you can see how unrealistic an expectation that is. In this article I will show you how to...read more →

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As I pointed out in the previous article about evaluating intercultural mistrust, we have double standards with regards to trust. We expect others to trust us automatically, even when we are not willing to trust others automatically ourselves. When stated so directly, you can see how unrealistic an expectation that is. In this article I will show you how to participate more actively in the process of helping others to make the decision to trust you. How can you use the three criteria you learned about in the previous article to inspire intercultural trust?

Step 4 of my five-step CLEAR method  addresses how to build your professional identity, including how to inspire trust. The two are linked, because you cannot avoid building an identity. Thanks to everything you say and do on a daily basis, your colleagues are forming opinions about your professionalism all the time. They are also evaluating whether or not they can trust you. This all happens by reflex and is something that all cultures share in common.

Perhaps you rarely think about it; however, it constantly affects you. For example, you can feel disappointed if you hear that someone perceives you in a way that does not match how you perceive yourself. On the other hand, you can feel pleased when someone expresses an opinion of you that reflects what you like about yourself. And in the domain of trust, how upset would you be if someone told you bluntly that they do not trust you? But why should they? What are you doing to earn their trust?

Do Actions Speak Louder than Words to Inspire Intercultural Trust?

Some people believe that actions speak louder than words. By that they mean that what you do is more important than what you say. That is not the case when working across cultures. I maintain that when cultures interact, words are our most effective tool. As I have said in an earlier article, we cannot rely on body language and vocal tonality within intercultural contexts to inspire trust, the way we do in our own cultures. We may also be in work situations where we have only occasional contact with colleagues or clients from other cultures, so we never actually see them in action.

Due to all these realities of working across cultures, we have to explicitly say things that we are not in the habit of saying in our own cultures. The three criteria you saw in the previous article — sincerity, competence and reliability — can work as well for inspiring trust as they do for evaluating mistrust.

For example, you can preface what you say with phrases such as, “I am sincere when I say” or “I am competent at” or “I am always reliable at.” Alternatively, if you prefer you can say “What others have said about my sincerity is” or “What others have said about my competence is” or “What others have said about my reliability is.” In either case you can also provide evidence, such as facts or anecdotes, for each of the three criteria of sincerity, competence and reliability, on which others can base their decisions.

Some of my clients find speaking so directly about themselves in this way is uncomfortable at first. They are concerned that they will be perceived as praising themselves excessively. In some cultures, such praise is not well regarded. However, what they soon discover is that egotistical self-praise is not what I am suggesting.

Other clients believe that what they say about themselves carries little weight. That belief does not surprise me, because in our own language and culture we take what we say and how we say it for granted. In other words, we do not even notice how we speak or listen. We are unaware of how we are building our identities in words, as much as in actions. We do not examine how we grant and withhold trust. All these things take place without a need for self-awareness. But even in our own language and culture, the flow of words between us is constantly influencing our opinions of each other and strengthening or weakening trust.

Intercultural business contexts force us to be more self-aware and to rely on words more than ever. Just to be clear, I am not claiming that saying something once will guarantee that others will trust you. However, I highly recommend that you practice articulating your sincerity, competence and reliability until it becomes a habit. You can regularly include such statements about yourself at meetings, conferences and even in emails or beginnings of reports you write. By consistently doing that you will be actively participating in inspiring others who do not know you well enough to trust you. If you don’t accept the responsibility to inspire intercultural trust, who will?

The next article in this five-part series on trust is about promises — the most powerful exchange of words there is — and why it is imperative to always honor your own promises.

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How to Evaluate Intercultural Mistrust http://sherwoodfleming.com/evaluate-intercultural-mistrust/ Sat, 05 Nov 2016 09:49:02 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3639 In the previous article I had you look at unreliable criteria for deciding whether to grant or withhold trust in an intercultural context. In this article I am going to suggest three criteria that are more precise and verifiable: sincerity, competence and reliability. I will explain each in turn and how they relate to mistrust. Sincerity We have the opinion...read more →

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In the previous article I had you look at unreliable criteria for deciding whether to grant or withhold trust in an intercultural context. In this article I am going to suggest three criteria that are more precise and verifiable: sincerity, competence and reliability. I will explain each in turn and how they relate to mistrust.

Sincerity

We have the opinion that someone is insincere if we suspect that the person is saying one thing to us but saying something different to themselves or others. If we suspect someone is being ‘two-faced’ — an English expression that means insincere — we can say that “We do not trust that person’s sincerity.” But lack of sincerity is not sufficient evidence to say more broadly that “We do not trust that person.” Besides, the degree of insincerity that is acceptable varies according to the culture.

Min-Sum Kim, in her book Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication, claims that in some cultures “social sensitivity and tact” are more highly valued than sincerity. She writes that sometimes insincerity can actually be regarded as “a necessary tool for the management of interpersonal relationships.” So ideally when working across cultures you should be prepared to be more flexible about how much sincerity you expect from people before you evaluate them as insincere.

Competence

Business success depends on being able to assess the competences of others. The opinion that someone is competent is typically grounded on mutually agreed upon standards in a particular domain within a particular context. For example, certain professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, cannot work in the court rooms or hospitals of other countries because standards of competence vary.

We rarely ask ourselves about what standards we are using for grounding our opinions about another colleague’s competence. As a result, our standards may be entirely inappropriate within the current intercultural context. So when you are deciding whether you trust someone’s competences, be clear about the standards you are using, so that your colleagues can provide the proof you need to evaluate them fairly.

Reliability

Having the opinion that someone is reliable means we expect his or her competence to last not only in the short term but to continue in the long term. This is why people with a lot of business experience are often granted more trust than someone who does not have much experience. If people have performed reliably in the past, we expect that they will continue to do so. We tend to trust their reliability without question. Of course, there are actually no guarantees that past competences will continue into the present or future. However, this is an area where we more readily give people the benefit of the doubt.

The Elusive Intercultural Workforce

When we work with people over a period of years they no longer have to prove anything to us in terms of their sincerity, competences or reliability. However, the intercultural work environment is more elusive, since it is often characterized by short assignments. We typically communicate by phone- or video-conferencing and email, rather than in person. When we do meet in person, it is often for brief meetings or presentations. How can we then evaluate whether we trust our colleagues or not?

Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating Trust

I recommend you evaluate any mistrust on your part by asking yourself targeted questions, using the three criteria of sincerity, competence and reliability.

  • Do I evaluate these people as insincere?
  • Do I evaluate them as incompetent?
  • Do I evaluate them as unreliable?
  • What proof can I provide about their insincerity, incompetence or unreliability to justify withholding trust?
  • Can I also provide proof of their sincerity, competence and reliability to justify granting trust?

Also, ask yourself questions about yourself.

  • Which of the three criteria are most important to me?
  • Is that something I learned from my culture?
  • Am I willing to be flexible for the sake of working more harmoniously with this person?

If you have the opportunity, ask the other person questions as well.

  • Which of the three criteria are important to him or her?
  • What criteria is he or she using to evaluate you?
  • Is it possible for you to openly discuss issues of trust?

These kinds of questions will allow you to stay more open to granting trust. Most of us are prone to being mistrustful without proof, even though we expect others to trust us implicitly, also without proof. The road to trust is treacherous only because we rarely examine the terrain closely enough. And when working across cultures it is a terrain that is constantly shifting from one situation to the next.

To sum up, I am asking you to make a habit of evaluating any automatic mistrust you may have. Why? The quality of your relationships with your colleagues, and the future you build together, depend on it.

In the next article I will suggest how you can use these three criteria to inspire others to trust you.

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How to Cultivate Trust Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/trust-cultures/ Sat, 05 Nov 2016 09:33:08 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3637 Trust is an important issue when working across cultures. Deciding whether you trust someone or not will influence how you work with that person in the present and in the future. Despite the importance of trust, we take trust for granted. What I mean by that is that we rarely examine what trust is or how trust is built, and...read more →

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Trust is an important issue when working across cultures. Deciding whether you trust someone or not will influence how you work with that person in the present and in the future. Despite the importance of trust, we take trust for granted. What I mean by that is that we rarely examine what trust is or how trust is built, and what is different within intercultural contexts. In addition, we do not realize that how we grant or withhold trust has also been culturally learned.

Let’s explore what you mean when you say you trust someone or you do not trust someone. Let’s also examine the criteria you use when granting trust or withholding trust, and where you learned that criteria. Trust is a complex topic and I do not claim that this article will solve all the challenges of building intercultural trust. However, it is essential to begin to take some steps toward understanding trust for yourself, as well as what you can do differently. While everyone pays lip service to how important trust is, few examine it closely, discuss it openly or decide to take action to cultivate trust.

Unreliable Criteria for Withholding Trust

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the prevalence of cynicism. That is an attitude that is summed up in a statement I hear frequently: “You know, Sherwood, in business today you can’t trust anyone anymore.” While people of all ages and cultures who say that believe they are being worldly wise, I challenge the wisdom of beginning every new business relationship with your mind already made up that you will withhold trust. Is that your attitude, as well?

If so, when you withhold trust, how are you making the decision to not trust someone? There are two unreliable criteria involved in this. The first is the cynicism I mentioned above. That is unreliable because it is simply not possible to defend an opinion that every person of any culture that you encounter in business is not worthy of your trust. Obviously, many are.

The second unreliable criteria is based on regarding trust as a feeling. This is especially unreliable within intercultural contexts, because of all the unfamiliar body and vocal intonation cues that you are reacting to automatically. For example, if according to your cultural standard someone stands too close to you or too far from you, makes too much eye contact or not enough, speaks too quietly or too loudly, you can experience varying degrees of discomfort. If you use your discomfort as evidence justifying your mistrust, then you are sure to be mistaken. I am not saying that the feeling aspect of trusting or not trusting is never reliable. However, I am claiming that it is rarely reliable within intercultural contexts.

The Linguistic Trap of Generalizations

Let’s look at this more fully. From a linguistic standpoint, when you say you mistrust someone, what is frequently missing is a specific domain and time frame. Here is a simple example; imagine that you loaned money to a man you worked with who promised to pay it back to you on a certain date. Imagine that he did not keep the promise and that you never heard from him again. You would be justified to say that the person was not trustworthy in the domain of paying back the money he had borrowed. However, you would likely simply say if asked that, “He is not trustworthy.”

The problem with expressing an opinion in this typical way is that you are proclaiming that he is untrustworthy in every domain for all time. It is possible that he faithfully paid back debts in the past and would continue to do so in the future. However, out of a single experience you make a general statement that brands him as untrustworthy in all domains forever.

Indeed, sometimes we even go further to the more all-encompassing generalization I mentioned earlier, “You cannot trust anyone anymore.” Furthermore, within intercultural contexts there is the risk of extending such generalizations to an entire culture. Even if you know it is politically incorrect to express such opinions, you may be making such generalizations without even realizing that you are doing it. Generalizing is a linguistic trap in which we ensnare ourselves and others without even being aware of it, regardless of our native language or culture.

Changing your habits to avoid the two unreliable criteria for withholding trust, as well as the linguistic trap of generalizations, are tangible steps that you can take to expand your ability to cultivate intercultural trust. In the next article I will give you some suggestions for other criteria that you can use on which to base your opinions of whether or not to trust someone within a business context.

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Ignoring Tone and Body Language Simplifies Communicating Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/body-language-communicating-cultures/ Sun, 23 Oct 2016 13:37:24 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3628 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...read more →

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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.

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Communicating Concisely and Clearly Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/communicating-concisely-clearly-across-cultures/ Sun, 16 Oct 2016 11:37:02 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3623 What’s the requirement of being a good intercultural communicator? Within intercultural business contexts that is a question few people ask themselves. Most simply continue to speak, write and listen in their usual way, which they learned in their native language and culture. Even when they speak another language, typically English, they don’t consider communicating differently, although that limits their ability...read more →

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What’s the requirement of being a good intercultural communicator? Within intercultural business contexts that is a question few people ask themselves. Most simply continue to speak, write and listen in their usual way, which they learned in their native language and culture. Even when they speak another language, typically English, they don’t consider communicating differently, although that limits their ability to adapt when communicating interculturally. Here are a few suggestions for what to adapt and why.

Communicate Concisely

Being concise when you speak and write is not about brevity for its own sake. Instead, communicating only what is necessary helps to keep both the speaker and listener focused on what is important. This approach, especially when using English as a second language, is not a limitation but a strength, for three reasons.

First, people listen and read with different levels of English competence. Second, you will often find yourself in meetings or at conferences where you are not given as much time to speak as you would like. Third, your listeners have different cultural expectations of you than you have of yourself. You may feel a need to be eloquent and entertaining when using English but your listeners and readers just want to understand you.

So a lack of conciseness when speaking and writing not only leads to confusion for your listeners and readers, it undermines your confidence in your own English language skills. I recommend that you use vocabulary that you are comfortable with and employ short sentences and simple verb tenses.

I am aware that choosing “concise” as an objective may not be consistent with how you prefer to communicate in your native language. However, within intercultural contexts when using English as a second language, your ability to distil what you want to say or write is a valuable communication skill to develop. In fact, it has value in any language.

Rather than complicating your life by endlessly trying to acquire more English vocabulary and more complex sentence structures, why not simplify things, instead? Practicing to more concisely use the vocabulary and grammar you already know is a much more effective use of your time.

Communicate Clearly

Contrary to popular opinion, communicating clearly in English as a second language is not about using the right word at the right time. So increasing your vocabulary cannot help you here. Clarity actually begins before writing or speaking. Are you clear about what you want to communicate? And do you know how to organize what you decide to communicate so that your listeners or readers from other cultures, at any level of English competence, clearly understand?

Clarity is also connected to how your readers and listeners interpret what you say. If you are not taking responsibility for participating in their interpretations, clarity cannot happen. This is something some of my clients know how to do in their native language. However, they have to be shown how to employ that ability when using English as a second language.

The assessment of what is “clear” and “not clear” is cultural. That is because we all share a common shorthand within our own cultures and languages that goes beyond the words that we choose. However, exactly what is “clear” within an intercultural business context?

You may be surprised to hear my opinion that native English speakers are at the biggest disadvantage within intercultural business situations. Since English is the language being used, they are often not aware that their way of communicating is only “clear” to others from their own culture. So even speaking English perfectly does not guarantee communicating clearly within intercultural business contexts.

Start Improving How You Communicate Across Cultures

When cultures mix under one roof, or work across countries, are there any common standards to ensure clarity? Is such a question even discussed, let alone agreed upon?

That is a failing I observe repeatedly within intercultural business contexts. To remedy that my site, my book and my seminars, are dedicated to raising awareness of this oversight and to providing a variety of solutions. Begin taking steps toward learning to communicate concisely and clearly across cultures. Make that your goal and also make it a discussion point within your intercultural team, department or company.

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Practice Adapting Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/practice-adapting-cultures/ Mon, 03 Oct 2016 17:21:09 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3612 In the last three articles you have been exploring how to see what to change, determine what is open to change and then choose what to change in the way you communicate across cultures. But nothing happens without a final, crucial step — practice. You have to practice so that change can happen. Why? Because change is not a destination, it...read more →

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In the last three articles you have been exploring how to see what to change, determine what is open to change and then choose what to change in the way you communicate across cultures. But nothing happens without a final, crucial step — practice. You have to practice so that change can happen. Why? Because change is not a destination, it is a process. Accustomed as most of us are to a goal-oriented mindset in business, a common misconception is that we can set targets on communication changes and get there on deadline.

Let’s look at this misconception about change. I will use a sports example. Imagine that you are an average tennis player. You are no longer satisfied with your level and decide to improve your game. You would not expect that reading about how to be a great tennis player would be enough. And yet, when we want to become better at communicating across cultures, we really believe that simply reading concepts about intercultural communication is sufficient to produce different actions.

Back to the tennis example. What would you do to improve your game? You’d probably hire a coach and agree to do what he or she suggests. If the coach told you to hit the ball against a wall every day for fifteen minutes, you would do it. Or if the suggestion was to hold your racket a different way, you would not argue and say, “But that doesn’t feel comfortable.” Instead, you would willingly go through the discomfort, even though initially you might play worse than before. If you questioned the coach, you would be told that this was a temporary situation and that with persistence you would see how much your game would improve. And you would indeed discover that what once felt uncomfortable would eventually not only feel more comfortable but would be far more effective. What you were practicing was improving your game in ways you could never have predicted when you started.

Communication Skills Need Practice

If I suggested to you that you practice what you chose to change in the previous article for fifteen minutes every work day, would you do it? I find that those amongst my clients who are willing to practice make huge improvements very quickly. Communication skills, like sports skills, are embodied skills. By that I mean, they are acquired by doing, not by reading about them or grasping them conceptually. This is one of the reasons that children learn faster than adults. Children are willing to practice, a little at a time. They don’t create goals. They don’t need to set aside a particular time in the day to practice. They practice in any context without inhibition or shame about not doing the exercise well enough.

It is the same with improving your intercultural communication skills. The first time you try communicating differently it may feel uncomfortable and may appear to be less effective than what you did before. The second time it will be slightly easier but still not as effective as you would like. However, after twenty, thirty or one hundred times it will be comfortable and increasingly more effective. Small incremental actions practiced repeatedly are what lead to building more appropriate habits for communicating across cultures.

All my one-on-one communication coaching, my interactive workshops and my 220 page eBook, Dance of Opinions,  take you through the process of change.

Adapting how you communicate in English across cultures is not as overwhelming or insurmountable as you may think. It often simply requires someone to show you what is possible and what to practice. In all that I do, my commitment is to creating clear and confident intercultural communicators.

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Overcome Overwhelm and Confusion when Adapting Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/overcome-confusion-adapting-cultures/ Mon, 03 Oct 2016 17:07:40 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3610 In the previous two articles I explored how to see what to change and then determine whether that is open to change or not. Why? Because you can’t change what you can’t see and you cannot change what is not open to change. In this article I will be exploring how to choose precisely what to change, because then you...read more →

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In the previous two articles I explored how to see what to change and then determine whether that is open to change or not. Why? Because you can’t change what you can’t see and you cannot change what is not open to change. In this article I will be exploring how to choose precisely what to change, because then you can focus your efforts. This is important, because two of the biggest challenges I see people facing every day within intercultural business contexts are overwhelm and confusion.

Feeling overwhelmed is a symptom of believing that you have to change everything at once. Instead, it’s better to choose only a few things to focus on. Later, you can make other choices. By focusing your attention on less, you can make progress faster. Furthermore, you will feel satisfied because you will begin to see tangible results sooner.

Coupled with overwhelm is confusion. The direction to take is unclear, so you wait for it to become clearer or for others to provide clarity. In fact, clarity comes when you make a choice. For example, one of my French clients had been recently promoted to work on a project that required him to communicate with people from a variety of cultures and professions. As a result, his unique communication style, which had worked so well for him in the past when communicating with others in the same culture and profession, was now no longer as effective.

In our first session together it was obvious that he was experiencing overwhelm and confusion. He really didn’t know where to begin or what exactly to do. He had a vague notion that improving his English would help. But not only was that not the solution for him, it was actually contributing to his sense of overwhelm and lack of clarity. He had set himself an unclear and unreachable objective: “I want to speak English as well as I speak French.” Good luck with that! Speaking a second language always requires us to adapt how we communicate.  That’s a fact of life that everyone within an intercultural context has to accept. What is not commonly understood is that everyone can learn to improve how they communicate.

I worked with him on communicating his opinions more clearly and concisely. At the end of the ten sessions his response was, “I am much more effective and confident expressing my opinions in English, thanks to you.”

I am not surprised by that kind of feedback, because there is so much vocabulary and so many verb tenses — how can you ever master them all? From my perspective, once a client has achieved an upper-intermediate level of using English as a foreign language, learning how to more effectively use the vocabulary and grammar they already know is a better use of his or her time. You can do that, too, by focusing your attention on mastering how you use speech acts more effectively.

How you make requests, offers, promises, declarations, and express opinions and facts, makes up your unique communication style. This adds up to a total package that operates automatically. The good news is that you don’t need to choose to change all of it; your best approach is to focus your efforts on a single speech act at a time. Choose one from the following list and begin today.

On the speaking side, you can choose to change:

How you make requests.

How you make offers.

How you make promises.

How you make declarations.

How you express opinions and facts.

On the listening side, you can choose to change:

Not listening for the intention behind the words.

Ignoring tone and body language.

Listening for other people’s concerns.

Building intercultural trust.

The list is relatively short, in fact, when you focus on the building blocks of all human communication. I have linked some items in the list to places on my site where you can learn more about what you can do specifically to practice improving.

Because ultimately the first three steps of the process of change, which I have covered in this and the previous two articles, are only the warm-up for the fourth step — practicing.  While that seems obvious, you should ask yourself, why don’t you practice communicating better more often? Check that out in the next article.

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Stop Wasting Time When Adapting Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/time-adapting-across-cultures/ Mon, 03 Oct 2016 16:36:52 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3608 In the previous article we looked at the role that how you communicate plays in adapting to your intercultural context. Once you can see what to change, you can change it, right? Actually, this depends on whether what you want to change can in fact be changed. The surest road to endless frustration is trying to change something that is...read more →

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In the previous article we looked at the role that how you communicate plays in adapting to your intercultural context. Once you can see what to change, you can change it, right?

Actually, this depends on whether what you want to change can in fact be changed. The surest road to endless frustration is trying to change something that is not open to change. In contrast, the biggest lost opportunity is not trying to change something because you believe it is not possible to change it. So let’s examine which is which.

What is not Open to Change

First, you can’t change other people. When I say that in my intercultural communication seminars, people often laugh. If I ask someone why they’re laughing, the answer is usually the same. Regardless of the person’s culture I am told, “I know that’s true, Sherwood, but I still try to do that all the time.” Do you also do that? If you stop to think about it, you will admit that without the other person’s cooperation, he or she cannot be changed.

Second, you can’t change personality. I find that what people label as a “personality flaw” is often an incompetence with a particular speech act. For example, I was working with a manager recently who was having communication problems with her multicultural team. The first time I met with her she thought that she had the solution to her problem: “I have to stop being such a perfectionist,” she told me. When I asked her how successful she had been so far in her personality transformation, she said, “Not at all. I guess I’m just not adaptable enough.” But her dilemma wasn’t about her so called perfectionism or an inability to adapt. Instead, I worked with her over several sessions, showing her how to make clear and extremely detailed requests.

In my experience no one can meet a perfectionist’s standards, because their standards are unclear, even to themselves. And if they aren’t clear about their expectations, how can anyone meet them? By improving her ability to make clear requests, my client solved her problem without changing her personality. She also no longer needed to label herself incorrectly as “not adaptable enough.”

This example is not an isolated instance. Over the years I have helped countless professionals manage what they considered personality flaws by simply improving their competences in using speech acts. Their personality didn’t change but their communication problems were resolved. From my experience many “personality conflicts” are language based. Especially within intercultural contexts, the solution is in language, not in personality.

Third, you can’t change people’s perceptions of time. A fact of life is that cultures condition our perception of time; how we view deadlines, what is being late or on time, and what is too fast or too slow is culturally conditioned. A French executive in one of my seminars had worked in dozens of countries during his long career. He told several amusing anecdotes about what being “on time” could mean in different cultures. He said being on time can mean anything from being a few minutes late, several hours late or even arriving a day late for a meeting. Due to his extensive experience he had learned to be extremely flexible in his time parameters when managing multicultural teams. As a result, he openly discussed other people’s cultural guidelines and negotiated mutually agreed-upon time standards, rather than blindly imposing his own.

What is Open to Change

It is commonly agreed upon that values are not open to change but I’m not convinced about that. I agree that cultures condition us to believe that certain values are the “right” values. And often we are not even aware of what those are, until they are challenged within an intercultural context. The biggest challenge when cultures mix is who has these supposedly “right” values? Is there an open discussion about who adapts to whom, and how?

There are no formulas to be followed but I recommend examining the possibility that values are more open to change and negotiation than most of us say they are. I always explore this possibility with clients who lead intercultural teams when values are the root cause of their communication difficulties.

Use Your Time Efficiently by Focusing on What is Possible to Change

I have seen repeatedly over the years that people, regardless of their culture, waste a lot of time and effort trying to change what cannot be changed: other people, their personality “flaws” and other people’s perceptions of time. On the other hand, they do not make any attempt to change what can be changed: their own perceptions of time, their values and how they speak and listen.

The way you make requests, offers, promises and declarations, as well as how you express opinions and facts, can be changed. Indeed, part of learning any new language is mastering the form and vocabulary of those fundamental speech acts. But in order to communicate effectively within an intercultural business context, you have to go beyond the basics. You also have to learn to use speech acts more skillfully for coordinating action, building trust and having more cooperative relationships. You can also change how you hear requests, offers, promises, declarations, opinions and facts. You can learn to listen with what I call intercultural ears. Since how you speak and listen is simply a total of the habits created over a lifetime, you can build new habits that are a better fit with your current intercultural business context.

Speaking and listening habits are open to change. You have learned to say and hear speech acts a particular way from your native culture. But you can learn to say them and hear them differently when using English within intercultural business contexts. By doing so you will be able to more effectively communicate within any intercultural business context, since speech acts are the universal language that we all share in common.

Once you have determined what you can and can’t change, you can choose precisely what you want to change. That way you can focus your efforts and make greater progress, faster. The next article will give you some ideas about where to begin.

 

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