If I told you that there was a universal language that you could use in all your spoken and written business communications with people of other cultures, would you want to learn it? Right answer!
In this article I will challenge some of your assumptions about the complexity of intercultural communication and show you what you can do to master this universal language.
Is Communicating Across Cultures Complicated?
You might share the commonly held opinion that communicating across cultures is very complicated. And you’ve probably spent time learning a new language (I’d guess English as a foreign language) but found that wasn’t enough. So perhaps you’ve also read books outlining intercultural situational stories or memorized complex comparative charts and lists that dictate what you should or shouldn’t say, depending on the culture. Admittedly, such an approach can seem overwhelmingly complex.
This traditional approach to communicating across cultures could be helpful if you are moving to another country and are planning to stay there for a long period of time. In that case you have the opportunity to gradually adapt your way of communicating.
But how feasible is this approach if your work requires you to engage with many cultures without ever leaving your own country? That is the reality for many of my clients. They work with multiple cultures under one roof and also communicate by email, phone and conference calls with colleagues and business associates from cultures worldwide. One of my clients in Monaco, an international bank, has a monthly video conference with thirty people from eighteen different cultures. In such situations another approach is required. If your intercultural context is similar to what I just described, simplifying communication is the most effective approach. Simplicity lies in focusing on how everyone, regardless of the culture, communicates in the same way.
A Universal Language that is the Foundation of All Languages
The world over, every language is built on what J.L. Austin called speech acts.
You request what you want or need
You offer to do what someone else wants or needs
You promise to do what was requested or offered
You declare possible future directions for yourself and others
You express your opinion, either backed up by facts, or not
These five speech acts allow us to coordinate action with each other. They are a part of everybody’s native language and are typically included in language training methods. Regardless of the language we are using, we all understand this simple universal language. We all use these speech acts in our everyday life, as well as to conduct business locally, nationally and globally. Seen from this perspective, communication is actually very simple and our linguistic interactions are all not that different, after all.
Going Back to Basics Simplifies Communicating Across Cultures
We were able to use speech acts effortlessly when we were children, long before starting school. So for all of us they are the fundamental building blocks of communication. However, layered on top of those basics have been educational, cultural and professional influences about how to use each of the speech acts appropriately. Everyone automatically relies on those conditioned communication habits built over a lifetime, which I call your unique communication style. However, the very habits that work most effectively within our own culture and native language can often prove to be a handicap within an intercultural context.
That is why when cultures mix I recommend that everyone pays less attention to whether others are making requests, offers, promises, declarations or opinions in the “right” way, based on their professional or cultural standards. Instead, I suggest focusing on the content of the speech act itself. That requires revisiting the basics of each speech act to ensure that it is clear and complete.
Showing my clients how to simplify speech acts in these ways is what I do in all my one-on-one and group workshops focused on communicating across cultures. I show my clients how to master the universal language so they will be clear and confident intercultural communicators whether at home or abroad.