Editorial

22 Feb 2022

Intercultural Communication In The Workplace

Kelsey Kaczynski

The modern work environment has evolved massively over recent years. The world’s population is more mobile than ever, the Internet has enabled business to seamlessly traverse countries and continents, and the rise of remote work means that a workforce is no longer constrained by geographical location. These changes mean that today’s workplace has a wonderfully diverse mix of people, with co-workers from many different cultures and backgrounds working alongside each other.

This is an undoubtedly positive development that enriches the experience of work and reflects the vibrant multicultural world we live in. It also presents challenges that need to be risen to in order to make sure the workplace is an inclusive and supportive environment. Different cultures can have different norms, and the meaning of body language can vary greatly from one culture to the next. These factors and more can lead to miscommunication, which can in turn create discomfort and stress for employees. This makes effective intercultural communication more important than ever, and here we are going to outline how you can achieve best practice in this area, and why it is vital to do so.

What Is Intercultural Communication?

When communication takes place across different cultural and social groups, this is essentially intercultural communication. It encompasses communication between people from different religious, ethnic, educational, and social backgrounds.

Communication styles can vary greatly between cultures. In some cultures, the workplace is more formal, and managers or bosses are always addressed as 'sir' or 'madam', whereas in other cultures things are much more informal with employees of all levels addressing each other on a first-name basis. The meaning of facial expressions can also vary between cultures, and some cultures may be considered more expressive than others.

Taking these cultural differences into account and using this knowledge to improve communication skills and understanding between cultures is the key to good intercultural communication.

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What Is The Importance Of Intercultural Communication In The Workplace?

A major factor that has pushed intercultural communication into a position of great importance for companies is the rise of remote work. Companies can now hire from anywhere in the world and attract talent regardless of geographical location. Our globalized economy also means that there have never been more opportunities for people to work in different countries and cultures. These factors naturally lead to people from diverse backgrounds working alongside each other, and this brings the importance of intercultural communication into focus. Are you interested in learning exactly how to effectively communicate in a remote work environment? Download flair's step-by-step checklist here!

Good intercultural communication is crucial for both preventing potential conflicts in the workplace and for resolving them. It is the ideal tool for breaking down cultural barriers and for developing an awareness of different cultural norms.

There are major benefits for organizations that have a diverse workforce. When a company is home to people of differing backgrounds, it allows space for a multitude of perspectives to be brought to the table. This openness to a diverse range of viewpoints has been shown to make companies more innovative.

Effective cross-cultural communication fosters a sense of inclusion in the workplace, which in turn helps to boost employee retention rates and to reduce absenteeism. People who feel included and valued are much less likely to look for a different job and they even take less time off sick. Good intercultural communication is also vital at every level of the company structure, right up to C-suite. It has been shown that organizations that have gender-diverse top-level management teams perform much better than organizations that are less diverse.

For a company to succeed on a global scale and for team leaders and managers to bring out the best in the workforce, the importance of intercultural communication needs to be understood and acted upon.

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What Are Some Tips To Improve Communication Skills?

Now that you understand the importance of intercultural communication, the next thing to do is to look at ways in which you can improve the communication skills of yourself, your team, and your overall organization.

  1. Keep an open mind and be flexible

A problem that many of us are prone to is thinking that the way we do things is the right way, and that doing things in any other way is wrong. This can happen on both an individual and organizational level. What we don’t often realize is that these ways of doing things are often cultural in origin or even specific to our personal background – there are actually multiple ways of doing things.

Instead of assuming that the way things are being done is the only way, stay open to other ideas and perspectives. This broader approach can yield new insights, and help us to understand that there are actually multiple ways of doing things, and even that the previous ways didn’t take cultural differences into account.

Being open-minded goes hand-in-hand with being flexible. Don’t be rigidly set in your ways, and if you find that taking into account other perspectives will change the way your organization does things and makes decisions, go with it.

  1. Promote an understanding of diversity

In any given workplace it’s almost certain that one culture will be the most prevalent. This is most often due to the location of the office or the place of origin of the company. Miscommunications and differences can arise when this more dominant culture doesn’t have an understanding of the diversity of cultures within an organization.

Everyone in a company should be encouraged to learn about different cultures and understand how values and beliefs can differ between them. It can involve reading about other cultures to understand different social norms, ways of living and history.

This understanding can then be taken forward to your interactions with co-workers and clients. Something as simple as knowing how to correctly greet people from different cultural backgrounds can contribute greatly to better intercultural communication. If you know when to bow and when to shake someone’s hand, you’ll be displaying a real appreciation of other cultural norms.

Individuals and companies can also make great strides by being aware of and honoring culturally significant dates. We are often very good at knowing what the important dates in our own cultural calendars are, and we should extend this to other cultures in the workplace too.

  1. Encourage one-to-one interactions

Reading and self-educating about different cultures is important for you and your team and is the best starting point, but even better than this is direct one-to-one interaction. When co-workers communicate directly with each other it’s much easier to explain the subtleties of each other’s culture. Being curious and asking questions will make these conversations meaningful and interesting.

This kind of open communication and personal interaction is also an invaluable way of making employees feel comfortable with each other. If someone is new to an organization and has joined from a different cultural background, they may feel apprehensive and unsure of how and when to communicate with others. By encouraging individuals to engage with each other, it will help new starts to feel more at home.

As with many behaviors within an organization, an example is set at the top and then followed by others. Team leads, managers and C-suite staff should set examples by making a concerted effort to have these kinds of exchanges with others as often as is possible.

  1. Facilitate induction courses

At the organizational level, initiatives like induction courses for new employees are ideal opportunities to communicate the policies and culture of a company at the outset. If your company culture has more formal interactions between managers and staff, this can be communicated at this time.

For employees who are joining a new workplace and culture, this will be of great benefit to them. Rather than having to feel their way through and potentially make mistakes, they can be informed from the outset. It also provides a forum for new starts to share some information about their own cultural background.

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How Does Intercultural Communication Affect Diversity In The Workplace?

When an organization is utilizing strong intercultural communication practices, diversity in the workplace is nurtured and given the opportunity to thrive. Team members from different cultural backgrounds and with different cultural values feel included and understood and feel like their viewpoints are being taken into account.

An increase in cultural diversity in the workplace has been shown to have a number of benefits, such as decreases in employee turnover and an increase in productivity and innovation. These benefits can only be realized when there is a priority placed on intercultural communication. When there is a lack of cultural awareness, miscommunications can take place, and employees can even feel alienated and excluded, and no group of people should feel this way in the workplace.

Hiring and cultivating a culturally diverse workforce should be the goal of all organizations. It is simply better for business on every level and is a key factor in increasing the well-being of employees. Focusing on intercultural communication is important for every step of the journey.

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What Are Some Common Barriers To Intercultural Communication?

Achieving good intercultural communication doesn’t happen automatically and always requires a level of work. However, there are some common obstacles that you will encounter in most modern workplaces.

The COVID pandemic has exerted a big influence on more or less every single aspect of our lives in the past two years, so it should be no surprise that this also has an impact on intercultural communication. While there are similarities in the way in which different cultures have approached the pandemic, there have also been differences. For example, in many cultures mask wearing has been a standard part of everyday life for many years, whereas in other cultures it is seen as new and novel.

Different cultures also experience differing levels of government involvement in managing the pandemic, with different world leaders setting examples that can often be at odds with each other. Even within cultures people’s approach to the pandemic can vary greatly. This presents both a big challenge and an opportunity for practicing good intercultural communication. Taking the time to understand the perspective of other groups and finding ways to communicate effectively about this topic is an ideal setting for developing better communication skills.

Another potential difficulty for intercultural communication is the variations in nonverbal communication between cultures. For some cultures, nonverbal communication is a key tool in communicating effectively, whereas for other cultures nonverbal cues are kept to a minimum. Also, while there are certain parts of nonverbal communication that are universal, such as smiling when you’re happy, some nonverbal gestures can mean different things in different cultures. Taking the time to understand the differences is vital.

Employees who are working in a culture that is different from their own may even experience culture shock and find it hard to adjust to the new cultural norms they are working in. Someone who has been used to referring to their boss as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ may find it very strange to start informally using their superior’s first name. Over time, the culture shock will subside, but at the beginning it can be very disruptive for new starts and organizations should be mindful of this risk.

The rise of remote work has made workforces more diverse than ever, but it also can present challenges for communication. When employees are based in a physical office, there are more opportunities to engage in direct communication and to learn about the norms of each other's culture. When communication is largely through scheduled meetings, emails and messaging services, it can be harder to foster the sense of inclusion that is necessary. However, it is far from impossible, and with the right care and attention good intercultural communication can be achieved regardless of the medium it happens through.

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Conclusion

Good intercultural communications skills are a vital asset for every modern company. The globalized economy, rise of remote work, and increasingly mobile workforce has led to more diverse teams than ever. This diversity is incredibly positive and leads to more innovative companies, more dedicated staff, and maximizes profitability.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of good communication in enabling a business to succeed. If you’re in a leadership or management position, now is the time to review your own intercultural communication practices and make sure you’re empowering your company to thrive.

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