Cross (X) or Cross (–>), it’s up to you!

Many people find it difficult to communicate in a cross-culturalenvironment. Some people always hear the beep sound with a big red (X) sign; some people manage to cross in between cultures with ease. What’s the secret? How can I see through the pair of deep blue eyes?

Recently we went to our HQ in the Netherlands for a ten-day professional training. We had a wonderful time with our trainers and colleagues from Holland, Germany and America, a nice mix. And I also witnessed many cultural differences. One of the incidences really caught my attention.

On the third day of training just after lunch, one of my Chinese colleagues suddenly burped in the class, quite loudly, all the Chinese colleagues just ignored it like nothing had happened. But I noticed that three of our foreign colleagues reacted differently, they were shocked and then quickly had a little chat together, “Oh my god, that was so rude!” they whispered, and I overheard.

It is not a very polite thing to burp loudly in public, but is it fair to label that behavior as being rude when the person had neither intention nor idea about the impact it might has to others? Nevertheless, I do, too, understand that it’s natural to be shocked when one is coming from a culture where certain manners or behaviors are very much noticed, valued and appreciated. So here comes the misunderstanding of communication in a cross-cultural context. The sender sends a message unintentionally in a non-verbal form (a loud burp could mean for Chinese people I just had a satisfactory meal), but the receiver received the message and decoded it as being disrespectful, there is obviously a huge gap between the intention from the sender and the effect received by the receiver.

The saddest thing is that the misunderstanding is not known to either side. Doesn’t this happen all the time for people in cross-cultural communication? It’s like your American coworker is very angry about you and has been acting weirdly, but you don’t know anything about it, or vice versa. How frustrating and ineffective is that?

Back to the story, the question raised now: how to make the misunderstanding known for both sides so that wrong interpretation will not last or being reinforced when the same thing happens again?

The answer came out the next day.

The following day, I was chatting with my German colleague Claudia in the class after lunch, suddenly my Chinese colleague sitting next to us burped again. This time Claudia hesitated a bit, then she stopped our conversation and went to my Chinese colleague and said to her with a smile “Dear, I have to let you know that in our culture burping loudly in public is considered impolite to others, we normally control it and cover our mouth with hand, or if it really came out unexpectedly we will say sorry or excuse me to the people around us. How is that perceived in China?” My Chinese colleague didn’t quite understand in the beginning, but she eventually did and received it as a constructive feedback from another culture. I admired Claudia for her courage and authenticity. I said to her that I really appreciated her feedback to clear the misunderstanding, I also told her in a joking way that we Chinese don’t like them blowing nose at the table too, it can be very de-appetizing! We all laughed and went on to talk about all kinds of taboos in different cultures. It feels so much better to discuss all that in the open air!

So how to reduce misunderstanding in a cross-cultural context in general?
Notice how Claudia did it in the next day, as a receiver, when she felt uncomfortable (affected by the value in her culture), instead of having some negative inner voice, she decided to give feedback, and she did it in a very effective way because of the following:

1) She smiled, this small behavior created a friendly and relaxing atmosphere. (Non-verbal)
2) Her feedback focused on behavior, not the person. (D.I.E model)
3) She checked to see if the behavior is perceived differently in another culture. (I.I.YOU in cross-culture context)

Feedback is sent by the receiver to make clear to sender the impact on him/her (also known as the Effect in the communication model) and then check if it’s inline with the sender’s Intention, in the context of cross-culture communication, the intention might be very much influenced by culture. Effective feedback skills can create transparency and open dialogue without offending others. Feedback is very essential (the receiver to sender) in the Checking process.

Since Checking is two-way street, it’s not done by just the receiver. The sender can also take initiative in the communication to avoid misunderstanding from happening by checking the receiver’s feeling when sender notices the unusual behavior of the receiver, usually non-verbal. Or even check before communication to understand better of that culture, e.g. special taboos. This kind of checking can be helped by google.

There are still so much more about communicating more effectively in a cross-cultural context, but most importantly remember : Checking before Judging! It’s for all communication, especially when you are a culture away.

You can cross (–>)!