Sherwood Fleming's Intercultural Communication Insights
Solving Intercultural Communication Problems
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intercultural comunication problemsAre you are a manager or leader of an intercultural team? Or do you work within an intercultural company? If so, are you experiencing intercultural communication problems? Take a look at the photo — is that how you try to solve your intercultural communication problems?
Accustomed as we are, in the West at least, to cause and effect thinking, we are convinced that surely there must be a formula somewhere that we haven’t found yet. However, the flaw in this logic is that this is the wrong way to look at such problems. Intercultural communication problems are not a puzzle to be solved. That is why I prefer to use the metaphor of a dance when discussing these, this is closer to what happens when we communicate.
In a dance, such as a tango or waltz, everyone knows the basic steps. Then the dance changes slightly, according to who we dance with. This forces both partners to adapt. We prefer some partners to others. And we dance better with some people and worse with others. We also enjoy ourselves more with particular partners. There is always someone who leads and someone who follows; both roles are important and it is clear which is which in an actual dance.
The practice of speaking and listening within intercultural business contexts is fundamentally the same as in this dance example. All of us know the dance steps of requests, offers, promises, declarations and opinions, which are the five main dance steps of human communication. And all of us, using English as a second language in intercultural business contexts, know the basic vocabulary and grammar for those speech acts. We also have varying amounts of the vocabulary required to dance with others when writing emails and reports, or when speaking in meetings, on the phone or during presentations. We also know how to do the dance of ‘small talk’ at social events, such as coffee breaks and lunch.
As with with actual dancing, you dance differently with everyone. You prefer some intercultural dance partners over others. Although you’re not always sure who is leading or following and you may have opinions about which is more important. This is similar in many ways to the dance you do with people from your own culture. The difference is that your own dance is more familiar, and speaking and listening thus feels easier with people from your own culture.
Go Back to Basics to Solve Intercultural Communication Problems
When you label something as an intercultural communication problem, what do you think you are identifying? It’s useless to look outside yourself or outside the dynamic of who you are dancing with. Instead, rather than complicating things, go back to basics. Look at the dance steps of requests, offers, promises, declarations and opinions. Somewhere, you and the person or people that you are dancing with are out of step at that basic level.
Unfortunately, people typically add layers of complexity to something that is essentially extremely simple: two or more human beings in the dance of coordinating action in the present, which often but not always impacts the future. Within a business context, everyone has an expertise to contribute. It’s that simple.
I’ll provide just a few examples of how we complicate things. For example, we expect things from others that we haven’t clearly asked for and then resent them for not giving them to us. Or we offer things to others that they do not really need or want, and blame them for being ungrateful when they do not value them. Perhaps we believe our ungrounded opinions about everything and everyone, which create as much or more suffering...
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