Monthly Archives: May 2013

Becoming Culturally Competent

“Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence”

Attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, this epigram holds true today in many cross‐cultural interactions. We can, in fact, generally assume that intercultural misunderstandings are the result of cultural myopia rather than the lack of good intentions.

The antidote is called cross‐cultural competence, i.e. the ability to communicate effectively with people from cultures different from our own. This is not a quick buy‐off‐the‐shelf kind of remedy but rather a process in which we can identify at least 3 components or stages:

  • AWARENESS of our own cultural conditioning, cultural biases, blind spots and hot buttons
  • KNOWLEDGE about other cultural systems and most importantly about how our own culture is viewed by members of other cultural groups
  • SKILLS acquired through cross‐cultural training workshops, real‐life interactions and experience.

Much like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, cross‐cultural competence can only be achieved through continued practice.

In the end, our goal is to achieve effective intercultural communication while developing and maintaining successful relationships. And effective communication means nothing less than for the original message ‐ intended, encoded and sent by the transmitter – to coincide with the message decoded and interpreted by the receiver.

Furthermore, for as much as there is such a thing as one‐way communication, it is no doubt desirable to focus on a more constructive form of information transfer involving an exchange and progression of ideas as a two‐way process.

Communication is no simple endeavor. As George Bernhard Shaw once put it,

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

We notice how difficult it is to convey and interpret messages as they were originally intended. This holds particularly true when communicating across cultures in as much culture directly impacts the way we send and receive information.

Bearing this in mind, when engaging in communication with someone from a culture different from our own, we should assume our counterpart’s good intentions, practice empathy and trust our intuition. At the same time, conscious of the common mental pathway of increasing abstraction (known as the ladder of inference) that so often leads us to take wrong actions on the basis of false conclusions we’ve drawn, we need to constantly remind ourselves to avoid assumptions and suspend judgment.

Enjoy the adventure. Cultural competence fosters understanding, mutual growth and gain, while bestowing us with the incommensurable pleasure of expanding our horizons.

Why Learn To Communicate Across Cultures?

“…the single greatest barrier to business success is the one
erected by culture.”

Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall

Today more than ever, business is conducted in some kind of multicultural environment ‐ at the office or with customers and colleagues abroad. Many companies, however, do not offer their personnel the necessary training to succeed in the global marketplace. Misunderstandings and poor communication are the result. Furthermore, employees are unable to manage cultural differences, expatriates suffer from culture shock thus negatively impacting the company’s productivity and foreign assignments end prematurely. All the above translate into major costs and losses to companies.

In fact, the main reason for failure in international business is not the lack of technical expertise or good will, but rather cultural illiteracy and the lack of people skills.

Knowledge of a foreign language is a key element in communicating across cultures. It not only promotes understanding and mutual respect by allowing for dialogue in another’s tongue but also gives an insight into foreign cultures and different ways of thinking. In fact it is believed that the language we speak not only expresses but also determines the way we think!

Learning a new language broadens our horizons, builds and strengthens relationships while allowing us to take advantage of new opportunities.

In view of the subtle yet powerful impact of culturally conditioned behavior on international business transactions, cultural competence is now recognized as a critical element to succeeding on the global stage. Intercultural or cross-cultural trainings combine a company’s business skills with the necessary people skills. They provide management and staff with the knowledge and tools to develop general and specific intercultural skills in order to work more effectively with international clients or colleagues. Employees having received formalized cross-cultural training are more effective in leadership roles, are good communicators and valuable company ambassadors. Incidents of culture shock are reduced and the premature return rate for expatriates drops dramatically.

For a company, cross-cultural training is an investment that pays, yielding the benefits of increased productivity, successful business relationships, and the avoidance of costly misunderstandings.