By Tomás Garza
Fostering a cohesive and productive work culture can be a challenge. There are the interests of different departments to manage, time pressures, budget limitations and a host of different personalities. To top it off, people in today’s workplace come from a variety of different backgrounds: different nationalities, ethnic groups, religions, etc. People in your organization may have vastly different concepts of work, interpersonal communication, and group harmony. Multicultural communication skills are a must. The good news? They’re surprisingly easy to practice.
Multicultural communication can be an intimidating concept for many. In business, we have plenty of other things to worry about, and usually, we just want to get the job done. With a culturally diverse team, however, it’s also important to avoid giving offense unnecessarily. It is important to avoid being a cultural rube.
If you’re concerned about adding yet another thing to your to-do list, don’t worry. The following five tips require very little effort, and in multicultural communication, it’s the effort that counts. By keeping these things in mind, you can go a long way toward endearing yourself to your colleagues, management, or employees, creating trust, and fostering a more cohesive work environment.
1) Keep an open mind. This may sound obvious, but keeping an open mind is the most important thing you can do in relating to people of different cultures. People simply don’t do things the same way. If, of course, someone’s differences are destroying the work flow and group culture, that is another matter. When that isn’t happening, an open mind is critical.
Keeping an open mind means, in part, not stereotyping. We are bombarded with cultural assumptions every day, particularly in the media, and being an effective communicator means letting go of our own preconceived notions about our team members and the backgrounds they come from.
For example, if you believe that all Latinos arrive for a 9:00 meeting at 9:40, you will project that belief in your interactions with Latino members of your staff. Also, if you have Hawaiians on your team and think that all they want to do is lounge around, hit the beach and surf, your interactions with them will suffer.
These and other preconceived notions about different cultures are simply not true. Your staff may be quite dedicated, committed and punctual despite cultural differences. It’s a matter of self-awareness on our part. It helps to ask ourselves: Am I holding on to any preconceived notions that are getting in my way? Simply asking the question helps to create an open mind that creates an inclusive and more pleasant work environment.
2) Have at least some knowledge of people’s cultural backgrounds. To be fluid and cohesive with your team, it is important to have at least a general understanding of each member’s cultural background. This will give you valuable cues as to how your team members approach people, their definitions of respect, their boundaries and their overall sense of how human interactions should be conducted.
An encyclopedic knowledge is not required. Indeed, to assemble that much information on people would take time you could be devoting to other things. It is more practical to arm yourself with some basics, especially if you know you will be working in or around other cultures, such as traveling for business. For example, in Japan it is considered rude to show someone the sole of your shoe; many Jews and Muslims do not eat pork.
Again, having this knowledge is a matter of awareness. The more cognizant you are of your team members’ backgrounds, the better you will relate to them and the more effective your organization will be.
3) Practice active listening. All human beings feel more comfortable, more valued, and more a part of a team if they are confident they are being heard. Give people in your organization this value by actively listening to them: make eye contact with them (or not, depending on the culture); nod and give verbal indications you are listening. You may also find it helpful to summarize and restate what someone has told you, particularly if this restatement echoes a great idea or a concern.
Active listening is an entire course unto itself, but practicing these points and simply keeping the issue in mind will boost team morale and improve your communication immeasurably.
4) Watch your nonverbal communication. Often included with the skill of active listening, nonverbal communication takes on special importance when it comes to the subject of multiculturalism. For example, many Native Americans do not make eye contact the way people do in a typical business or corporate environment. In some cultures, animated gestures or “talking with your hands” is considered normal, in others it is a sign of gross mental instability. For almost everyone, it is, of course, poor communication to speak to somebody while glued to a computer screen, your cell phone or the clock on the wall. Paying attention to your nonverbal messages can show you’re listening, and that your colleagues’ opinions matter.
5) Maintain a personal touch. Even when faced with deadlines, financial constraints, a burdensome workload and all sorts of workplace disagreements, it is important to keep a personal touch in your interactions. In multicultural communication, this point is again a matter of simple awareness. For example, if you know that people of certain nationalities are family-oriented, it takes very little time to ask someone about their kids. The other person then sees you as nicer and more human, building trust between you. Anything you can do to show an interest in your colleagues’ lives outside of work will build camaraderie among you and make your organization that much more effective, and enjoyable.
In conclusion, attaining comfort and fluidity in multicultural communication is surprisingly easy. Practicing these five items will make your work life more enjoyable, and you will avoid coming across as a cultural rube. Remember that perfection is not required, nor expected—it’s making the effort that counts.
Tomás Garza is a conflict resolution and personal development expert with over 12 years of experience helping people erase pain and turmoil from their lives. Tomás has served on the faculty of Portland State University and is a former President of the Oregon Mediation Association. In 2013 he founded The Garza Initiative to further help people move beyond their unhelpful patterns of behavior and connect to their deepest selves and purpose. For more information on Tomás’ programs please call at 541-230-4477.