Why cultural competence is essential for good communication

Why cultural competence is essential for good communication

By Dr Domna Lazidou, culture and communication expert  

An interesting approach to customer service

During a recent work trip to Switzerland, I stayed at a small friendly hotel in a picturesque town by Lake Geneva. While there I had to borrow a plug adaptor from the concierge which I forgot to return, assuming, when I later discovered it in my luggage, that the hotel would simply charge me for the mistake.

What I did not expect was that a very strict, official email would be sent to my client (who had booked the hotel for me), accusing me of stealing the plug and demanding that I returned it immediately or they would charge me. My client joked that I had better comply before the Interpol knocked on my door!

I was mortified, but also amused: treating your customers as if they were criminals is certainly a novel approach to customer service.

In reality, of course, the young hotel employee who wrote the email did no such thing. For one, she did not say that I had ‘stolen’ anything; I simply assumed that the accusation was implied. And she would, I suspect, be very distressed to hear that her well-intentioned, honest and direct email, was taken to be anything other than what it was – a polite reminder that rules needed to be followed.

She could not predict that by the time her email arrived at my client’s desk and then on mine, her polite directness would be interpreted as overzealous officialdom and poor relationship management.

Cultural conditioning

This is precisely the challenge of culture. On the one hand, it shapes the way we see the world (‘rules are more important than relationships’ in this case), the way we communicate and (mis) understand each other’s messages. On the other, how this is done and why is rarely obvious to us. As participants of a particular culture, we are poorly equipped to question our cultural conditioning and biases.

To quote the American anthropologist Edward Hall, who did so much to understand how culture works and why cultural differences matter in a connected world,  “Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its participants”.

The result is that in scenarios like this, where we communicate and work with others with different cultural perspectives, we often fail to see the other side: we take our assumptions for granted, rush to the wrong judgment and the wrong action.

The response only serves to confirm our cultural bias and the misunderstanding escalates from there.

How many of us, who are used to the face-saving indirectness of British culture, or the ubiquitous ‘small talk’ that opens most workplace meetings and emails, have flinched when confronted with the directness of some of our European and North American co-workers, thinking them too rude?

And how many have even stopped to reflect that our indirect ‘politeness’ can be equally exasperating and we would be more effective in some cases, if we stopped being affronted by others’ directness and instead occasionally adopted it? Because in the right context with the right audience it would be the right thing to do.

Cultural awareness in a VUCA world

Had she known and reflected on such things, the Swiss hotel employee may have simply charged a credit card, rather than write an email that might be misinterpreted and cost the hotel much more than the price of a plug adaptor. In the event, both my client and I were able to see the other side, but what if we had not?

In a globalised business world, where we increasingly work across borders, where multicultural, often virtual project teams collaborate across functional and company boundaries, and innovation and creativity depend on understanding and leveraging true diversity of perspective, we can no longer afford to maintain our cultural blindness.

As communication practitioners and as leaders, we need to develop our cultural knowledge and our cultural competence.

To do this, not only do we need to understand about hidden cultural ‘rules’ and assumptions and how they influence the way we do things – including our communication preferences and behaviours. We also need to develop our cultural self-awareness and our ability to reflect on and constantly question both ours and others’ perspectives and meanings.  And we need to learn to flex our cultural muscles, learning to extend our behavioural ‘comfort zone’ just enough to make us more effective in different contexts.

None of this is easy to do, but in the VUCA* environment most employers now recognise we inhabit, such skills are not just necessary; they are highly desirable.

*Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

Domna Lazidou is an academic, consultant and trainer who specialises in culture and communication in complex change environments.  She works with a range of international clients to design and deliver programmes on global leadership, engaging during change and working across boundaries, as well as to conduct culture audits and design and embed cultural values. Domna is a visiting tutor at Warwick University and a module leader on the MA in Internal Communication Management at Southampton Solent. She runs training on Culture and Engagement for Communication Professionals for the Institute of Internal Communicators and Warwick’s ‘Global People’ programmes.

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