Whether you aspire to work at the U.S. Embassy of China or never plan to dip a toe off the continent, cross-cultural communication matters. With the composition of the United States changing rapidly and advancements in technology made every minute, it can be hard to know who you will need to communicate with throughout your professional career.
This winter break, I spent a month studying international media and interning in Zambia. I knew the trip would teach me about communicating in a foreign country, but I never expected to learn so much about communication in general. Regardless of where you are, communicating to individuals who think differently can be difficult. Communicating with other cultures can be made easier by following these five steps:
The golden rule of public relations is know your audience. This is especially the case when communicating across cultures. It only takes a little secondary research or a few interviews to figure out what is relevant in other geographic areas or in other cultures of people.
A little understanding goes a long way. Whether you are in another country or working with someone from a different background, getting to know another person’s culture is not only a nice gesture, but also a sign of respect. You don’t have to forfeit your own holidays or traditions for someone else’s, but showing an interest is impressive — and hey, you just might learn something.
Even when two people speak the same language, there are many words, phrases and hand gestures that can have different meanings. It is better to ask a client or co-worker a million questions than to assume you understand what he or she means and get it wrong. Always repeat things back to clarify.
Even the most brilliant ideas might not be doable in a different environment. Social media, for example, is the answer to many consumer communication questions in the United Sates. Creating a Facebook or Twitter page in a country with unreliable and slow Internet connection, however, is likely not the best option. Always keep your end audience in mind when developing ideas.
Some aspects of other cultures can be shocking, but by no means does that make them wrong. For example, in many African countries, it is normal for someone to be late to a meeting simply because they got wrapped up in another conversation. Once you catch on to these cultural habits, embrace them — in my case, I used that time to grab some coffee or send an extra email.
When have you had trouble communicating across cultures? What did you do to overcome the problem?
Heather Farr is a senior in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and the president of the Hugh M. Culbertson PRSSA Chapter. Heather spent winter break studying at the University of Zambia and interning at Young & Rubicam/Ogilvy Zambia. You can contact her at HeatherLFarr@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter.