Are you having difficulties adapting across cultures when communicating? Do you conclude that it’s because you are not adaptable enough? Whenever a client says “I am not adaptable enough” I hear it as a desire to change but without any clear direction of exactly what to change. As a result, they may be blaming themselves or others may be blaming them for resisting change. But if you can’t see what to change, how can you begin to take any action to adapt? So where should you be looking?
Few people consider looking at how they speak and listen. Given that speaking and listening is part of every domain, in everyone’s life, that seems to me like a huge oversight. I have spent two decades addressing that oversight with clients in a variety of business contexts, including intercultural ones.
Not seeing how you speak and listen is even more of a handicap within intercultural business. In your own language and culture, you can more easily navigate the imprecise waters of words by relying on tone, body language, shared cultural standards and values. But when cultures mix, you must rely almost entirely on words. So it becomes even more important to understand how to use words beyond their most basic vocabulary and grammatical functions. You have to be able to see how you use language to co-ordinate action and build relationships based on trust and cooperation.
You already know how to do that in your native language and culture but you do it transparently. By that I mean, you do not see exactly what you are doing and how you do it. To transfer and adapt that know-how to a new, never-before-lived intercultural context requires looking at something you likely have never looked at before — speech acts.
Examine How You Use Speech Acts
Do you frequently complain? Complaining is rarely an effective way to adapt to change. Complaining is a symptom of a fundamental problem: an inability to make clear requests, an inability to decline requests, a difficulty accepting a decline or all of the above. If you are not getting what you want out of your current situation, then learning to be more effective at making requests is an obvious action to take.
Are you feeling unmotivated? It’s possible that you have a unique communication style which includes making offers more often than requests. This is fine unless your new intercultural context is one in which making offers is less appreciated or is even discouraged.
Most of us are unaware of how we are conditioned by our cultures to be more offer oriented or more request oriented. To be effective within intercultural business contexts you have to know how to use both the offer and request speech acts effectively. In fact, an intercultural context can be an opportunity to expand your communication competences in general.
Recently a client told me, “You know Sherwood, I realized after learning from you how be more effective at making requests in English for my current intercultural job, that I actually have the same problem in French. While I have always been good at making offers, I am now more competent at making clear requests and declining comfortably in both languages.”
Are you feeling undervalued? How you express opinions about yourself and your area of expertise may not be as effective in your new intercultural context. You may not know how to cultivate and inspire intercultural trust. I have helped many clients learn how to express their opinions more effectively and build trust using my five-step CLEAR method.
Are you wondering how you can be more innovative? I find that few people of any culture understand the power of making effective declarations and ensuring that others do not confuse their declarations with promises. Declarations are the first step toward changing the future. Promises, in contrast, are the foundation on which we build and maintain trust.
Identify What Speech Act is the Most Difficult for You to Change
The examples I have provided here are not formulas to follow. See them instead as a place to begin to look, so that you can identify which speech act is giving you the most difficulty. We all bring our habits of how we use speech acts to using English within intercultural business contexts, even if we’re Anglophone. So when cultures mix, people’s habitual strengths and weaknesses in the various speech acts can be the root cause of why they claim to not be “adaptable enough.” Indeed, within intercultural business contexts we all have what I call “cultural blind spots” about speech acts and communication.
We do not see that the standards that we have learned culturally for requests, offers, opinions, declarations and promises are no longer a fit. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see how we use speech acts and then adapt how we use them to be a better fit for our particular intercultural context. I call that developing your intercultural insight.
However, insight alone is not enough. For example, you may be frustrating yourself and others by trying to change things that are simply not open to change. The next article will help you determine if what you want to change is, in fact, open to change.