Talking about communicating across cultures usually prompts us to look at differences. How does my culture compare to yours? Researchers into cultural differences have developed an impressive array of models to help measure dimensions of culture.
Though such models are interesting, when it comes to actually speaking with people from different cultures, we need a more practical starting point. Think about it. We would never start a new connection with a statement such as “Isabel, I noticed your culture scores high in terms of indulgence, whereas mine scores above average on restraint.”
If we’re going to connect with someone from a different culture, wouldn’t it be more helpful to know something about that culture to begin with? This isn’t about memorizing lists of random trivia, but rather about getting to know some basic facts. Let me share an example:
Several years ago I climbed into a taxi at the airport. My driver’s appearance and accent drove me to ask where he was from. His reply was “Ethiopia.” My next question was: “So you grew up in Addis Ababa” (the national capital)? His face lit up!
Taxi Driver: “So you have been?”
Me: “No. But I would really like to. What’s it like there?”
For the next ten minutes he talked with great passion and excitement about Addis Ababa and I learned a great deal—all because I knew the capital of his country. When I got out of the taxi, he said, “I’ve been driving taxis for five years and never met an American who knew the words Addis Ababa. I am very happy today!”
So was I.
We will only connect with others if we take the time to learn some basic information about their country or culture. Learn the name of a city or capital, a big industry, just a few facts to show your interest. Then let your conversations expand that knowledge and build that relationship.
Good communication starts with showing you value the person and their opinion. A great leader builds relationships of trust by showing genuine interest in their employee’s life, whether that person is from across the county or across the world.