Lessons From Zambia: Five Keys to Cross-Cultural Communication

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.

Knowing the rules is just as important when communicating across cultures as when dealing with African wildlife. Heather Farr gets a little cheetah love in Zambia.

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:

1. Do Your Research

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.

2. Take an Interest

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.

3. Be an Active Listener

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.

4. Stay Flexible

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.

5. Keep an Open Mind

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.

5 thoughts on “Lessons From Zambia: Five Keys to Cross-Cultural Communication

    • Author gravatar

      Great post, Heather! It sounds like you had a wonderful experience in Zambia. It is so necessary for PR pros to be sensitive to other cultures when communicating outside the US. In my Spanish Business class, we discussed many failed marketing campaigns from people who do not fully understand their audiences. Those examples are good learning experiences and good for a laugh but not effective. Thanks for sharing!

    • Author gravatar

      I agree how interesting it can be to witness the similarities/differences in communicating in different countries. I have personally studied abroad in Rome, Italy and Beijing, China. Each place communicated so differently. Like the African countries you mentioned, Italy has a nonchalant notion of time that can be quite foreign to American business communicators. China has many topics that are culturally sensitive as well as vast Internet restriction policies that make it difficult for Americans to understand how to communicate there. Whatever the case, American PR students have to be prepared for the cross-cultural communication dynamic that is sure to await them in the job market. Yet I know many students who won’t have to opportunity to leave the country. I’m curious as to how you think students can best prepare to be cross-cultural communicators without ever leaving their college campus. Any suggestions?

    • Author gravatar

      Hi Tricia! Thanks for reading and for your comment. What a great question! Although I can only speak from experiences and opportunities on my campus, I assume that similar opportunities exist on other college campuses. At Ohio University, we have several departments devoted to international experiences, events and opportunities that take place right on our campus. Although our international students make up only a small portion of our population, they are very active and hold events such as cultural dance nights, food tastings, speakers, forums, fashion shows and a variety of other events nearly every week. We even have International Week in the spring, which consists of events throughout the week and ends with our International Street Fair. The best way, in my opinion, to better one’s cross-cultural communication skills without leaving home is to attend these events and interact with students from other countries on campus.

      The same goes for classes, too. Although I’ve taken classes with international focus, such as foreign corresponding, the best interaction I had was in classes like African history, in which my classmates were undergraduate and graduate students from all over the continent of Africa. I can honestly say that I learned more from my classmates than from the book, and it undoubtedly made me a more confident cross-cultural communicator. Does anyone else have other suggestions?

    • Author gravatar

      This is an interesting and so well maintained blog.

    • Author gravatar

      You gave great advice for cross-cultural communications. The five steps you provided are a very useful guideline to encourage successful interactions. There are many proposed guidelines for achieving success in cross-cultural dialogue, as well as insuring the communication is ethical. For example, Chen and Starosta’s Reciprocity Ethic attempts to “integrate both universal and relative perspectives” (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, 2008, p. 225). They begin with reciprocity, accepting a variation of the Golden Rule. They then apply four other principles: mutuality, non-judgmentalism, honesty, and respect. Through mutuality both parties look for the most common ground to exchange ideas. Non-judmentalism must be present in order to appreciate and accept exchange of ideas. Honesty builds trust in communications. Respect is how we preserve human dignity with others as we interact.
      I felt that your guidelines in this article intertwined very well with Chen and Starosta’s Reciprocity Ethic. They both promote respect, non-judgmetalism, mutuality, and reciprocity. Plus, as you mentioned, doing your research first and getting to know your audience is the best starting point. Applying the Golden Rule in Communication Ethics allows all other steps to be effective.
      Thank you for such pertinent information on cross-cultural communications!
      S. Campbell
      Drury University
      Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K.E. (2008). Ethics in human communication (6th ed.). Long
      Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

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