Adapting how you communicate across cultures is an essential skill. And you no longer have to work abroad to face intercultural communication challenges. Many of my clients work in the high-tech hub of Sophia Antipolis, in southern France. They exchange daily emails, or have conferences via phone or video, with counterparts all over the world. As employees of international companies, they also discuss projects with native Anglophones and those from other European and Asian cultures. The prevalent question to ask in such situations is: Who is adapting to whom?
I would not be telling you the truth if I said that all my clients are immediately enthusiastic about improving their intercultural communication skills. There are many resistances to learning something new. One of the biggest is that we wait for someone else to take the lead. Some of my clients ask me in a challenging tone, “Why should I make the extra effort to adapt my way of communicating? Why don’t others make that effort for me?”
In the most ideal of worlds, meeting each other half way would be the norm. However, if you work within an intercultural business context, you know that this is usually not the norm. That is not always because people resist changing but more typically it is because they do not know how to change. I often point out that you cannot change what you cannot see. Since most people cannot see how they communicate, they do not know what to do differently or how. Unfortunately, everyone is paying a high price for this lack of awareness.
What are the consequences of waiting for others to change? I have seen repeatedly that this results not only in wasted time and effort but also creates negative emotions and lack of trust, due to delays and misunderstandings. So, not only can waiting around mean missed deadlines and lost business opportunities, it can also result in you feeling frustrated, which undermines your motivation.
I don’t maintain that knowing how to adapt how we communicate across cultures will solve all the challenges of working interculturally, But I do say that communication is more significant than most of us realize. We all need to be willing to educate ourselves about how to improve our listening and speaking skills for intercultural business contexts.
So why not be the one to take the lead? You have nothing to lose and lots to gain in terms of more harmonious working relationships and intercultural trust, as well as efficiency.