Working across cultures presents many challenges as well as opportunities. As organisations expand their global presence and work with more diverse groups, cultural awareness and sensitivity becomes more important than ever.

Cross-cultural Misunderstandings

How we communicate remains one of the biggest areas where we can cause cultural misunderstandings. Even with a common language, different communication styles can cause friction amongst employees, business partners and multicultural teams. Organisations that are more successful working across cultures often recognise that how they deliver their message can have as much of an impact on the effectiveness of their communication as what message they deliver, ultimately effect the success of their business.

Communication Styles across Cultures

For example, some people are more comfortable if very direct language is used. They are more likely to be task orientated and value the clarity of the message, even if the message’s content can be uncomfortable. Although these cultures may not always be completely pleased with a message that has difficult content, unwanted information or is unpleasant to hear, they tend not to take any criticism personally. Further nuances in direct communication include levels of bluntness and politeness. For example, many Dutch or German people accept very direct communication styles as necessary to improve effectiveness, even if it is a very sharp message. On the other hand, Americans, who are also direct communicators, are much more likely to accept a direct message only if it is delivered politely.

Many other cultures prefer a communication style where language is used much less directly. They are more likely to be relationship orientated and value saving the face or reputation of their audience, even if the message is delivered more vaguely. Avoidance of any direct reference to personal criticism is of paramount importance, even if it is necessary to read between the lines in order to understand the true message. For example, many Asian cultures are uncomfortable with very direct communication styles, especially if they contain a very sharp message. They prefer not to put the relationship in jeopardy, even if that means the message is less clear. Instead, they will try to work out the message in context.

Upgraders vs. Downgraders

The Harvard Business Review explores how different cultures provide feedback in a recently published article. This article further identified some common communication differences between different styles of communication.

The use of words they label as ‘upgraders’ are more likely to be found amongst people who communicate directly. These words are used to strengthen their message, thus further enhancing feedback and reducing vagueness. Examples of these words include ‘absolutely’ or ‘totally’.

Less direct communicators are more likely to use words the HBR label as ‘downgraders’. These words are used to soften their message, and are used especially when giving negative feedback or other criticism. Examples of these words include ‘a bit’ or ‘maybe’. Although this less direct communication style is found amongst many Asian cultures, it is also a favourite technique of the British, who are generally much less direct then many other Europeans and certainly less direct than other people whose mother tongue is English.

It is not at all unusual for a British person to suggest that ‘perhaps we might consider other options’ only to find others did not understand this was actually an instruction and not a suggestion at all. Coupled with an apologetic demeanour, the British are actually masters at effective understatement – at least with each other.

Who is your Audience?

Organisations that take cultural considerations into account, especially when faced with the need to deliver negative feedback, may wish to switch their communication style, depending on their audience. This ultimately has the dual benefit of delivering a clear message without causing offence, which can be a potent message, indeed.