10 General Tips for Effective Cross Cultural Business Communication

As a Coach and Consultant with a specialization in cross cultural communication, I’ve been privileged to work with many clients who are working in international business. I have worked closely with Japanese and Americans in various business deals, as well as providing cultural orientation to individuals coming to the US from various cultures, and to Amercians moving to Japan, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Jamaica, etc. When presenting to or communicating with foreign business associates, clients, and potential partners, here are 10 general tips to keep in mind to make your communication more effective:

  1. Take time for the getting to know you stage: In many countries, business relationships take time, particularly in cultures that value relationships for the long-term. It is important not to rush this process.
  1. Speak clearly: Avoid jargon, slang, and idioms. Americans have no idea how much these permeate our language. Phrases such as: behind the eight ball, learning curve, be a piece of cake, get it up and running, etc. are very difficult for non-native speakers to understand. Imagine that each word you say is being directly translated—this will help you to stick to standard English. I was once interpreting for an American CEO to a group of Japanese business people who spoke some English.  This CEO actually said, “We were behind the eight ball on that one but we decided to run it up the flagpole to see how it flew.”  This is gibberish to second language speakers. Stick to words that can be looked up in a dictionary for clarity- these expressions are impossible to decipher unless your business counterpart is very fluent in American English!
  1. Control your pacing: Speak slowly enough for non-native listeners to catch each word, and take occasional pauses to give them time to catch up (another idiom!) and absorb what you’ve said.
  1. Hire your own interpreter: This point cannot be stressed enough. In important  negotiations, be sure to bring your own interpreter rather than relying on the other side to provide it.This is psychologically balancing as well as important to good communication. Your interpreter can tell you later what the concerns of the other side really were based on their side conversations, and they will understand the dynamics of the other side. If there is no interpreter and you do not speak the language of your counterparts, you are at the mercy of the possibly questionable bilingual skills of a person you are negotiating with. It is very poor business practice to rely on an interpreter the other side has hired. This leaves all the power in the hands of the people across the table from you.
  1. Working with an interpreter: You’ll need to get into a rhythm of pausing. Also, remember to speak to your counterpart, NOT the interpreter, and avoid saying things like “Tell him that . . .” etc.
  1. Pausing and silence: When soliciting questions, leave a long enough pause for listeners to ask. Researchers have found that generally, Americans will ask questions within a 3-5 second pause; Asians will often take 8-11 seconds before asking. Often, an American will assume there are no questions just as a person from another culture is about to ask one! Likewise, in business conversations, Americans will sometimes fill up the space with talk because they are uncomfortable with silence. On the contrary, people from some cultures need a silent space in the conversation in order to join in the flow. 
  1. Send very clear emails: Use good, bolded headers and as few words as possible to make your points clear and direct.  Don’t send long run on paragraphs for your counterparts to decipher.
  1. Use visual aids and handouts as much as possible: This allows English as a second language speakers to receive your message on a number of channels and increases message effectiveness. Many non-native speakers read English better than they comprehend spoken English, so uncluttered charts, graphs, and powerpoint presentations can be very helpful.
  1. Carefully consider your words: Don’t speak casually. I once had an American client who said during a meeting that it would be great to someday have an exchange program between the children of his company and a Japanese company. He was just ruminating, it was an idea that popped into his head at that moment. Six months later I received a call from the Japanese company, wondering how the plan was coming along. When I called to tell the U.S. manager, he was surprised; he hadn’t meant anything serious by it, it was just a thought. People in other countries may carefully consider what they say and assume that you will, too. Therefore, be careful what you suggest, since your counterpart may take it as a commitment.
  1. Build goodwill by showing you understand something of the other culture and company: For example, in relatively collectivist societies (including many Asian and South American cultures)  this would mean complementing the other company. Collectivists are proud of their group identity, therefore, rather than praising individuals, which would be embarrassing to them, praise their company. Particularly if you are dealing with a well-known, established company, let the other side know what an honor you consider it to be to be working with such an impressive entity.

Bottom Line: There is no “one way”  when it comes to cross cultural communication and relationship building. In any country, show your commitment to the relationship by doing your homework and getting training.  Contact me for a free consultation for your needs!