Do you know the English expression, “There’s tension in the air?” It means that people feel cautious, due to a concern that something unexpected or unwelcome may happen. If you work within intercultural business contexts, I’m sure that you have felt such tension during meetings, presentations and video or phone conferences.
When cultures mix there are many unknowns, such as different accents, unfamiliar body language and tones of voice. There are also different communication styles, customs and protocols. This can lead to participants being self-conscious and nervous about doing or saying the wrong thing, with a fear of appearing incompetent or inappropriate. In business we all have a certain identity we wish to maintain and do not want others to form negative opinions about us. All these factors produce tension.
As a result, some are hesitant to speak in such situations and therefore say very little. Those that initially have the courage to speak up often don’t dare to say more if others react to their words in ways they did not anticipate. Even people who actively participate in an intercultural setting may feel less confident than they usually do about their ability to express themselves, because they are speaking English as a foreign language. In general, many leave such interchanges feeling misunderstood or undervalued, or blame themselves for making a bad impression. Since this is rarely spoken of, it’s common for those experiencing such tension to assume there is something wrong with their way of communicating. Indeed, many of my clients and workshop participants want to me to help “fix” them.
Tension Goes with the Territory
However, I like to reassure my clients early on that this tension goes with the territory. By that I mean that it is a common reaction within unfamiliar intercultural business contexts. However, that is not to say that there is nothing that can be done about it. An example is in order.
One of my recent clients was a French quality control manager, who was in charge of multicultural teams in India, China and Finland, as well as in France. His role was to make sure that these teams were working smoothly, following his quality control parameters to the letter, and keeping him informed of any problems that arose. To accomplish his objectives, he held on-site training sessions and meetings for project updates at each site several times a year. He also conducted bi-monthly phone or video conferences with both his teams and upper management at the company headquarters in Paris.
During our first meeting he told me stories about his experiences, which clearly showed that he was a man who felt the tension in the air during many of these encounters. He admitted that he felt at times as if this tension was overwhelming. By his standards, work was not getting done as efficiently as he wished. In addition, on his yearly performance review he received a negative score on his ability to adapt. He found this particularly annoying because he felt he was doing his best to be as adaptable as possible. How could he be expected to know how to adapt appropriately to such a mix of cultures?
What Worked in the Past is Often No Longer Effective
I reassured him that his situation was really not that different from what I encounter with many people within international companies and that his reaction did not surprise me. Those collaborating in such situations often find that what worked for them in the past is no longer effective. Accustomed as they have been to getting positive results and positive reviews, experiencing the opposite takes on greater significance.
When you are a competent communicator in your native language and an expert in your field of expertise, this kind of negative experience can be confronting. It’s a challenge, for which few of us know a solution; we are all supposed to somehow figure it out for ourselves. We try to improve our competence in using the foreign language in which we work, typically English. But that provides only minor advances in our ability to actually communicate. We try to learn about the other culture. And that gives us some information but it doesn’t dramatically improve things. What we don’t think of doing is going back to the basics of how we communicate.
What is communication? How do we communicate? How do we need to adapt how we communicate within an intercultural business context? What do we all share in common? How can we build bridges of collaboration? Can becoming a more competent intercultural communicator help relieve the tension? These are the questions that we need to grapple with. They’re what I help my clients find concrete answers to, so they can take more effective action.
Continuing the example above, I worked with my client to show him how to make clear and complete declarations, requests, offers and promises. I showed him how to be equally skilled at expressing both collaborative and authoritative opinions. He learned how to build bridges to his listeners and walk confidently on both sides of the street that I call intercommunication.
All these communication competences are not culture specific but universal. As a result, he ended his sessions with me more at ease with himself and his ability to navigate conversations with greater awareness and competence. His greatest achievement, in his own words: “During my performance review I was able to convincingly demonstrate to my director just how adaptable I actually am!”
I can’t take much of the credit for how successfully he applied the techniques I taught him. He was one of those ideal clients who devoted a lot of time to practicing all the intercultural communication techniques at work between our sessions. At the end of the sessions he thanked me and said, “It’s amazing to me that what you taught me is so obvious and easy.” Indeed. Relieving intercultural tension is actually easy, once you understand the basics of communication in general and intercultural communication in particular.