Think global: How to overcome cultural communication challenges

Use these tips to ensure that every member of your global development team feels involved and understood.
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A few weeks ago, I witnessed an interesting interaction between two work colleagues—Jason, who is from the United States; and Raj, who was visiting from India.

Raj typically calls into a daily standup meeting at 9:00am US Central Time from India, but since he was in the US, he and his teammates headed toward the scrum area for the meeting. Jason stopped Raj and said, “Raj, where are you going? Don’t you always call into the stand-up? It would feel strange if you don’t call in.” Raj responded, “Oh, is that so? No worries,” and headed back to his desk to call into the meeting.

I went to Raj’s desk. “Hey, Raj, why aren’t you going to the daily standup?” Raj replied, “Jason asked me to call in.” Meanwhile, Jason was waiting for Raj to come to the standup.

What happened here? Jason was obviously joking when he made the remark about Raj calling into the meeting. But how did Raj miss this?

Jason’s statement was meant as a joke, but Raj took it literally. This was a clear example of a misunderstanding that occurred due to unfamiliarity with each other’s cultural context.

I often encounter emails that end with “Please revert back to me.” At first, this phrase left me puzzled. I thought, "What changes do they want me to revert?" Finally, I figured out that “please revert” means “Please reply.”

In his TED talk, “Managing Cross Cultural Remote Teams,” Ricardo Fernandez describes an interaction with a South African colleague who ended an IM conversation with “I’ll call you just now.” Ricardo went back to his office and waited for the call. After fifteen minutes, he called his colleague: “Weren’t you going to call me just now?” The colleague responded, “Yes, I was going to call you just now.” That's when Ricardo realized that to his South African colleague, the phrase “just now” meant “sometime in the future.”

In today's workplace, our colleagues may not be located in the same office, city, or even country. A growing number of tech companies have a global workforce comprised of employees with varied experiences and perspectives. This diversity allows companies to compete in the rapidly evolving technological environment.

But geographically dispersed teams can face challenges. Managing and maintaining high-performing development teams is difficult even when the members are co-located; when team members come from different backgrounds and locations, that makes it even harder. Communication can deteriorate, misunderstandings can happen, and teams may stop trusting each other—all of which can affect the success of the company.

What factors can cause confusion in global communication? In her book, “The Culture Map,” Erin Meyer presents eight scales into which all global cultures fit. We can use these scales to improve our relationships with international colleagues. She identifies the United States as a very low-context culture in the communication scale. In contrast, Japan is identified as a high-context culture.

What does it mean to be a high- or low-context culture? In the United States, children learn to communicate explicitly: “Say what you mean; mean what you say” is a common principle of communication. On the other hand, Japanese children learn to communicate effectively by mastering the ability to “read the air.” That means they are able to read between the lines and pick up on social cues when communicating.

Most Asian cultures follow the high-context style of communication. Not surprisingly, the United States, a young country composed of immigrants, follows a low-context culture: Since the people who immigrated to the United States came from different cultural backgrounds, they had no choice but to communicate explicitly and directly.

The three R’s

How can we overcome challenges in cross-cultural communication? Americans communicating with Japanese colleagues, for example, should pay attention to the non-verbal cues, while Japanese communicating with Americans should prepare for more direct language. If you are facing a similar challenge, follow these three steps to communicate more effectively and improve relationships with your international colleagues.

Recognize the differences in cultural context

The first step toward effective cross-cultural communication is to recognize that there are differences. Start by increasing your awareness of other cultures.

Respect the differences in cultural context

Once you become aware that differences in cultural context can affect cross-cultural communication, the next step is to respect these differences. When you notice a different style of communication, learn to embrace the difference and actively listen to the other person’s point of view.

Reconcile the differences in cultural context

Merely recognizing and respecting cultural differences is not enough; you must also learn how to reconcile the cultural differences. Understanding and being empathetic towards the other culture will help you reconcile the differences and learn how to use them to better advance productivity.

5 ways to improve communications for cultural context

Over the years, I have incorporated various approaches, tips, and tricks to strengthen relationships among team members across the globe. These approaches have helped me overcome communication challenges with global colleagues. Here are a few examples:

Always use video conferencing when communicating with global teammates

Studies show that about 55% of communication is non-verbal. Body language offers many subtle cues that can help you decipher messages, and video conferencing enables geographically dispersed team members to see each other. Videoconferencing is my default choice when conducting remote meetings.

Ensure that every team member gets an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas

Although I prefer to conduct meetings using video conferencing, this is not always possible. If video conferencing is not a common practice at your workplace, it might take some effort to get everyone comfortable with the concept. Start by encouraging everyone to participate in audio meetings.

One of our remote team members, who frequently met with us in audio conferences, mentioned that she often wanted to share ideas and contribute to the meeting but since we couldn’t see her and she couldn’t see us, she had no idea when to start speaking. If you are using audio conferencing, one way to mitigate this is to ensure that every team member gets an opportunity to share their ideas.

Learn from one another

Leverage your international friends to learn about their cultural context. This will help you interact more effectively with colleagues from these countries. I have friends from South Asia and South America who have helped me better understand their cultures, and this knowledge has helped me professionally.

For programmers, I recommend conducting code reviews with your global peers. This will help you understand how those from different cultures give and receive feedback, persuade others, and make technical decisions.

Be empathetic

Empathy is the key to strong relationships. The more you are able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, the better able you will be to gain trust and build long-lasting connections. Encourage “water-cooler” conversations among your global colleagues by allocating the first few minutes of each meeting for small talk. This offers the additional benefit of putting everyone in a more relaxed mindset. If you manage a global team, make sure every member feels included in the discussion.

Meet your global colleagues in person

The best way to build long-lasting relationships is to meet your team members in person. If your company can afford it, arrange for this to happen. Meeting colleagues with whom you have been working will likely strengthen your relationship with them. The companies I have worked for have a strong record of periodically sending US team members to other countries and global colleagues to the US office.

Another way to bring teams together is to attend conferences. This not only creates educational and training opportunities, but you can also carve out some in-person team time.

In today's increasingly global economy, it is becoming more important for companies to maintain a geographically diverse workforce to remain competitive. Although global teams can face communication challenges, it is possible to maintain a high-performing development team despite geographical and cultural differences. Share some of the techniques you use in the comments.

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Avindra Fernando is a passionate developer, conference speaker, and mentor. He has over 6 years of experience in designing and architecting real-time web applications, automating workflows, and mentoring fellow engineers. Avindra has spoken at various conferences. He was also a lecturer at The University of Kansas, where he taught ‘System Integration and Architecture’.

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