Steps toward effective intercultural communication include the development of cultural sensitivity, careful encoding, selective transmission, careful decoding, and appropriate follow-up actions (Deresky, 2003).
Table of Contents
Managing Intercultural Communication
Developing Cultural Sensitivity
When acting as a sender, a manager must make it a point to know the receiver and to encode the message in a form that will most likely be understood as intended. On the manager’s part, this requires awareness of his/her own cultural baggage and how it affects the communication process.
In other words, what kinds of behaviors does the message imply, and how will they be perceived by the receiver? The way to anticipate the most likely meaning that the receiver will attach to the message is to internalize honest cultural empathy with that person. What is the cultural background – the societal, economic, and organizational context – in which this communication is taking place?
In translating his or her intended meaning into symbols for cross-cultural communication, the sender must use words, pictures, or gestures that are appropriate to the receiver’s frame of reference. Of course, language training is invaluable, but senders should also avoid idioms and regional sayings in a translation, or even in English when speaking to a person who knows little English. A literal translation, then, is a limited answer to language differences.
Even in English-speaking countries, words may have different meanings. Ways to avoid such problems are to speak slowly and clearly, avoid long sentences and colloquial expressions and explain things in several different ways and through several media, if possible. However, even though English is in common use around the world for business transactions, the manager’s efforts to speak the local language will greatly improve the climate (Adler, 1991).
The type of medium chosen for the message depends on the nature of the message, it’s level of importance, the context and expectations of the receiver, the timing involved, and the need for personal interaction, among other factors. Typical media include e-mail, letters or memos, reports, meetings, telephone calls, teleconferences, videoconferences, or face-to-face conversations.
The secret is to find out how communication is transmitted in the local organization – how much is downward versus upward or vertical versus horizontal, how the grapevine works, and so on. In addition, the cultural variables discussed earlier need to be considered: whether the recipient is from a high-or-low-context culture, whether he or she is used to explicit or implicit communication, and what speed and routing of messages will be most effective.
Careful Decoding of Feedback
Decoding is the process of translating the received symbols into the interpreted message. The main causes of incongruence are:
- the receiver misinterprets the message,
- the receiver encodes his or her return message incorrectly,
- the sender misinterprets the feedback. Two-way communication is thus essential for important issues so that successive efforts can be made until an understanding has been achieved. Asking other colleagues to help interpret what is going on is often a good way to break a cycle of miscommunication.
Timely and effective feedback channels can also be set up to assess a firm’s general communication about the progression of its business and its general management principles. The best means to get accurate feedback is through face-to-face interaction because this allows the manager to hear, see and sense immediately how a message is being interpreted.
When visual feedback on important issues is not possible or appropriate, it is a good idea to use several means of attaining feedback, in particular, employing third parties.
Perhaps the most important means to avoid miscommunication is to practice careful decoding by improving one’s listening and observation skills. A good listener practices projective listening or empathetic listening – listening without interruption or evaluation to the full message of the speaker, attempting to recognize the feelings behind the words and non-verbal cues, and understanding the speaker’s perspective.
Managers communicate both through action and inaction. Therefore, to keep open the lines of communication, feedback, and trust, managers must follow through with action on what has been discussed and then agreed upon – typically a contract, which is probably the most important formal business communication.
Unfortunately, the issue of contract follow-through is a particularly sensitive one across cultures because of the different interpretations regarding what constitutes a contract (perhaps a handshake, perhaps a fully legal document) and what actions should result. Trust, future communications, and future business are based on such interpretations, and it is up to the manager to understand them and follow through on them.