For those of us who use English as our primary language, effective and clear communication is an on-going challenge. This is because normal communication within any language varies significantly depending on factors such as age, education, and dialect. When we communicate using messages, oral or written, that are mixed with slang, technical jargon, innuendo, and double meanings, an advanced level of sophistication is required to avoid miscommunication and to achieve comprehension.
For people with a different cultural experience and with limited English ability, effective communication can be extraordinarily difficult. Culture plays an important role in communication. It is the “filter” we use to interpret the world around us. Culture also determines how and when we should express those interpretations. An American worker may easily understand a sign on a factory wall that says, “No Horsing Around Allowed.” The same sign could leave a Hmong worker wondering where the horses are. In such an instance the worker may be confused for days without ever asking.
Question: Why doesn’t my employee ask for help when she doesn’t understand?
In some cultures, asking for clarification is avoided because it is considered impolite, especially when talking to a supervisor or an elder. For example, in Somalia, asking for clarification is perceived as an insult to the speaker. It is seen as an indication that the speaker did not adequately express his or her ideas.
Frequently among limited English speakers, respect for authority, fear, or the inability to express the need for clarification results in a show of understanding (“Yes, yes” “I see, of course”). In fact, the employee may not have understood. If you need to tell an employee to perform a new task, show it to him or her as well as explain it. Ask your employees to demonstrate understanding by repeating the instructions in his or her own words or by role playing the information or instructions that have been communicated. Doing this will allow for further clarification and ensure a shared understanding of the presented information.
Question: I have explained the performance expectations to my employee; why doesn’t he get it?
Workplace expectations are rooted in culture and exist to effectively guide appropriate behaviors that contribute to the overall goals and success of the organization. An employee seeing things from his cultural perspective may not understand organizational expectations or may interpret their meaning differently. It may help to identify whether an issue is related to culture or poor communication. Explain the rationale for the expectations, why they are important, and the consequences of lack of compliance.
Question: Why don’t my non-native speaker and native speaker employees interact?
Cross-cultural interaction requires both Americans and those from other cultures to leave their respective comfort zones. For the Americans, communicating with non-native speakers usually takes a bit more effort than making small talk with their American colleagues. They simply may prefer the more natural conversation they can have with their native speaker colleagues. In addition, the Americans may not be sure about the English skills of their new colleagues and may be reluctant to approach non-native speakers.
Communicating with native speakers can be extremely intimidating for non-native speakers, unless they are proficient English speakers or naturally gregarious. Both types of employees may be unsure what topics to bring up or what might be polite or impolite in the other culture. It may help for employers to take the lead and engage non-native speakers in casual conversation where appropriate. Even if the native speakers are reluctant to join in, it will provide the non-native speakers with good practice as well as help them feel welcome.
Question: I’ve tried to work with my employee on some of these issues, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. What’s wrong?
Often miscommunication with non-native speakers is based on a lack of cultural or linguistic understanding. Sometimes, however, it is not. While culture and language are major factors in interpersonal communication, they are not the only factors. It may be that the person is unhappy with the job or has a disagreeable non-complying personality.
Question: Should I expect immigrant employees to perform at the same level as other employees?
Yes. It may take more time, perseverance and require more initial investment, but this will be offset with commitment to the organization.
Guidelines for Cross-Cultural Communication
The following “guidelines” are from Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges, by Marcelle DuParw and Marya Axne. Whether in the workplace, the community, or school, these guidelines are helpful to keep in mind when venturing into the uncertain world of cross-cultural relationship building.
- Learn from generalizations about other cultures, but don’t use generalizations to stereotype, “write off,” or oversimplify ideas about another person. Generalizations are best used to understand and appreciate other interesting, multi-faceted people, but not as facts.
- Cross-cultural communication requires practice. It is in the doing that we actually get better at cross-cultural communication.
- Question your assumptions about the “right way” to communicate. Don’t assume that there is one right way.
- Search for ways to make the communication work, rather than searching for someone to blame for the breakdown. Don’t assume that breakdowns in communication occur because other people are on the wrong track.
- Listen actively and empathetically. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When another person’s perceptions or ideas are very different from your own, you might need to operate at the edge of your own comfort zone.
- Respect others’ choices about whether to engage in communication with you.
- Slow down, suspend judgment, and try to look at the situation as an outsider.
- Be prepared to learn about the world from a different perspective, and do not be afraid to ask questions that are respectful and well intended.