The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I will adapt his words slightly to make them applicable to intercultural communication: “The single biggest problem in intercultural communication is the illusion that communication is taking place.” Specifically, the illusion within intercultural business contexts is that when we are all using a common foreign language, English for example, we are communicating effectively. Do you have that illusion? If so, what’s the high price you’re paying for not facing the reality that you are not communicating as effectively as you could?
Facing the Reality that You’re Not Communicating Can Be Uncomfortable
This is often an uncomfortable realization for my clients to deal with. They say things such as, “You mean, all this time I thought I was communicating well enough but I really wasn’t?” Like many of my clients you are probably talking or writing spontaneously without any clear intention. As a result you rarely make your point clearly or concisely enough to bridge the wide gaps of different language levels and diverse cultural points of view that are present in every intercultural interaction you have, whether by phone, in person or by email.
When you do take the time to do that, then you will see that communication is actually taking place. It happens best when the speaker or writer takes full responsibility for both the clarity of the message and for building a bridge to the listener or reader. Sometimes my clients object to my suggestion of taking total responsibility for communicating. “Wouldn’t fifty-fifty with the listener or reader be fairer?” they suggest. My counter argument is that if you are the one speaking or writing, why would the listener or reader take any responsibility whatsoever? What’s in it for them? It’s difficult for my clients to refute that logic. They can clearly see that there is really nothing in it for their listeners or readers to spend a nanosecond figuring out unclear communication. Humbled by that realization, their next question is, “Okay, well then what do I do?” This is what I tell them.
The Three Pieces of the Intercultural Communication Puzzle
Second, learn as much as you can about making clear and complete requests, offers, promises and declarations. You’ll need to master these fundamental tools of a universal language that crosses cultures.
Third, learn to express your opinions clearly with the sincere intention on your part to build a bridge to your listeners or readers. I have devised the CLEAR method as a way to help you do that. I am convinced that expressing opinions clearly, concisely and confidently within intercultural business contexts is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
Create an Intercultural Communication Style
As you practice and master those three pieces of the intercultural communication puzzle you will be actively creating your intercultural communication style.
In business there are processes for understanding and improving many things, such as quality control, change management and workflow analysis. But why are there no processes for improving written and spoken communication within intercultural business contexts, so that everyone can learn together regardless of their culture? Unfortunately, for the most part workers are left to figure this out on their own. This is primarily due to the illusion that knowing English as a foreign language is enough. From my experience with clients over the past decade, English mastery alone is not enough. It is just the starting point. Beyond that there is significant room for improvement, whether English is a foreign language or your mother tongue.
I invite you to use the articles and actions on this site, as well as my Dance of Opinions eBook, to gradually and steadily build your communication competences. I also encourage you to be a catalyst for improving intercultural communication within your company. Share what you learn with others. Help others shatter the illusion that intercultural communication is taking place simply because everyone is using a common language.