I have worked in the human communication field for twenty-five years, the majority of them in helping my clients in France expand their abilities to communicate across cultures. What I have observed over the decades is that both within the same culture or across cultures, when communication goes wrong there is a tendency to engage in blamestorming. In other words, when deadlines are not met, or work has to be redone, or there is conflict and loss of trust, the first reaction is often to blame someone.
Generally, we tend to blame the listener. If only the person had listened well enough, there would not now be a problem. Sometimes we assume that it’s the speaker’s fault. If only he or she had been clearer the problem would not have arisen. And sometimes we are willing to share the blame – in this case both the speaker and listener are willing to take responsibility for faulty communication. But what if no one is to blame? What if language is not the precise medium we believe it to be?
Language is Always an Approximation
Language is a tool for coordinating action with others but it is never foolproof. There are always pitfalls of one kind or another, even in our own language and culture. Add to that working in a foreign language that we are less proficient in with countless different cultures and you exponentially augment the chances for miscommunication.
I have written elsewhere that cultures speak through us and we listen with intercultural ears. How can you blame someone for listening in a way that they learned in their own culture? How can you blame someone for saying something that it is inappropriate in your own culture, while in the other person’s culture it may be perfectly appropriate?
Beyond that, it’s not just the content of what was said that we blame. Sometimes it’s also the tone in which it was said or the body language that accompanied it. This is even more perilous territory. If we interpret a person’s tone of voice and body language as being aggressive or insincere, we will blame them for that. We will be convinced, without any real evidence, that we interpreted the tone and body language correctly. But of course If the person is from another culture, it’s better to assume that you have no way of interpreting tone and body language correctly.
Blamestorming Wastes Time and Takes an Emotional Toll
All these ways of speaking, listening, interpreting and ultimately blaming happen without us even being fully aware of them. Our lack of awareness doesn’t only result in miscommunication, it also results in frustration, anger, mistrust, demotivation and other negative emotions. We pretend that emotion isn’t a part of the business world but as humans we don’t really have a choice in the matter. Language and emotion go hand in hand. So what, if anything, can we do about this perilous terrain of human communication?
In the articles on this website, and in my work with clients who work across cultures, I show how to become aware of these predictable pitfalls. I also provide reliable ways to avoid or remedy them when they occur.
The first step is always to become masterful in the universal language. The building blocks of human communication — speech acts — are extremely simple to use but we need to become more vigilant to be complete and clear when employing them, especially when working across cultures. Beyond that, we all tend to complicate these fundamental tools with layers of cultural conditioning about the “right” way to make requests, offers, promises and declarations, and to express opinions. The second step is to realize that the complex range of appropriate tone and body language that each of us learns in our own cultures can be safely ignored.
Once you are able to do those two things repeatedly, you will be able to take the blame out of communicating across cultures. You’ll find it more satisfying to focus on coordinating action for the future via language in the present than to waste time assigning blame for flawed communication in the past — brainstorming instead of blamestorming.