Cross-Cultural Communication and Cultural Intelligence

We don’t generally consider the role of culture when thinking through how to communicate a concept to a friend or colleague. But we should be.

As more companies choose English as the language of business, it’s imperative to focus on the meaning of words across different cultures and countries. And the more you focus on cross-cultural communication, the better chance you have of improving your Cultural Intelligence, or CQ.

Cross-Cultural Communication

In a recent blog post, entrepreneur Derek Sivers shares his discussion with a French consultant living as a veteran expat in Asia; the expat claims, “Even though we are all using English as a common language, the same word can mean very different things in different places.”

We hear examples of this all the time. Sivers’s expat uses the word “quality” as his example. According to the expat, Americans tend to define quality as well-built while Koreans see quality meaning brand new; Japanese equate quality with being perfect, free of defects; and the Chinese associate quality with status.

And this is just one word. Think of all the other abstract words we drop into conversation on a regular basis that could easily have different meanings in different cultures.

In a blog post for Japan Intercultural Consulting, facilitator Sarah Fremerman Aptilon asserts the importance of understanding the type of culture with whom you’re interacting to improve your cross-cultural communication exchanges. For an example, she describes Japan as a highly nonverbal culture and America as a highly verbal culture.

We get this. But what implications does this knowledge have?

For Japan, silence and nonverbal gestures can be as important as words. In fact, the less a person talks, more often than not, the more respected he or she is. Having this awareness while engaging in conversation with this culture should ideally improve your overall connection.

These Japanese cultural practices may feel very uncomfortable for an American however.

American culture values words and their literal meanings. American culture values those who speak out, wax poetically and demonstrate verbal eloquence with ease. Often, those who are most articulate, demonstrating a strong command of the English language, gain the deepest level of respect.

Ponder these differences and consider how they could play out in a conversation between Japanese and American professionals. Pretty substantially, right? And again, this example just considers one difference between two cultures.

Cultural Intelligence

And cross-cultural communications is just a facet of improving your overall Cultural Intelligence.

David Livermore has devoted multiple books to the subject, including The Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Difference, a book offering tested strategies to improve your CQ. Livermore defines CQ as “your level of effectiveness working across cultures”.

Other professionals and even entire organizations make the promise of growing your CQ. Executive Consultant Angela Rampy, President of Success Through Learning, works with Fortune 500 clients internationally to get clients’ CQ up to snuff. She claims CQ is not an option, but a necessity to effectively operate in today’s world.

Since cross-cultural communication and CQ are so closely knit, let’s review a few of Livermore’s tips for communicating in English with non-native speakers:

  1. Be Empathetic: Put yourself in your non-native colleague’s shoes.

  2. Be Straightforward: Consider the use of metaphors, slang or jargon.

  3. Be Informed: Study communication styles and cultural attitudes.

Final Thoughts

It’s no longer acceptable to be just culturally aware.

Today’s globally mobile world really asks much more of us. We need to be cognisant of our language, others’ languages and how our use and interpretation of language in general affects our ever-growing global relationships.

Perhaps it’s time to give our cross-cultural communication and our CQ some serious TLC.