When we think about intercultural communication problems, we tend to think of the more obvious aspects such as different language and accents. But often the true barrier is less obvious and often unconscious. But to truly improve intercultural communication, we first need to become aware of our tendency for ethnocentricity.
Strategic benefits to intercultural communication
As I have talked about in previous articles and my book How to Manage Culturally Diverse Teams, our business world is becoming increasingly interconnected. We need to work with customers, partners and perhaps even employees that live in other countries. And here in Canada, multiculturalism is increasing rapidly! So we need to recognize that our workforce is changing to one of more diverse cultures. Those that resist or ignore this trend may find themselves at a disadvantage for:
- Recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees
- Attracting new customers and/or keeping existing customers
- Securing high value suppliers and other partners in the value chain
On the other hand, those organizations that are proactive to implement a diversity strategy will have an advantage in the above.
But how can we implement a diversity strategy unless we can improve intercultural communication?
What is holding us back with intercultural communication?
As we often focus only on the language aspect, we miss key components of communication. We can hire translators, or even use our phones to google translations. But that is only part of the puzzle. We can see communication difficulties even between people that speak the same language! And this is due to a very different context in how we perceive and process information about the world around us.
The concept of Ethnocentricity
Take a moment to consider the environment that you were raised in. Your parents taught you (either directly or through their own example) the type of behaviours that are acceptable in society, and those that are not. They, and others in your circle of family and community, also taught you how to stay safe and to get what you need from the world. These customs and practices are passed down from generation to generation. And as you have never known another way of being, you believe that these ways are universal.
However, in other communities, different customs and practices have arisen to meet the needs of safety and security. And likely, these behaviours are very effective within the environment and social structure. The physical environment and history (such as wars, natural disasters, etc) all play a part in the values and beliefs that have arisen in a particular society. Each adapts to their own specific needs.
The degree to which we have been conditioned in an “isolated” society can affect our ethnocentricity, in that we just haven’t been exposed to different ways of doing things. We can only see through the lens of our own social conditioning, and we are usually not conscious of it. Ethnocentricity is quite different than overt bias and stereotypes. While we can strive to overcome the latter, we may still be operating from a particular belief system which unconsciously rejects different perspectives.
What does this mean for intercultural communication?
Based on our assumptions that our beliefs and customs are universal, we assume that others have the same context. So we take “short cuts” in our communication. For example, consider some of the following phrases that we use in western culture, and how they would make sense to someone that had not been raised in this culture?
- Another day, another dollar
- It’s a dog eat dog world
- Bringing home the bacon
- Time to rally the troops
We unconsciously assume that everyone just knows what these things mean. In fact, we usually aren’t even aware of the amount of times we use these kind of phrases in our day to day.
And in the workplace, we just assume that people know the basics of how to communicate the way we do.
So where do we start to improve intercultural communication?
The first step is to become self aware. When you are entering into discussions with people from diverse backgrounds, check in to see what assumptions you are making. Is it reasonable to assume that everyone has the same context and history? Or perhaps you need to provide more background before jumping in?
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Wishing you much success with intercultural communication!