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How to fix cross-cultural communication issues

Sarah K. White | April 28, 2016
If your company operates on a global scale, you might find yourself running into problems with colleagues on other continents. If that’s the case, it’s time to and reevaluate how your company handles cross-cultural communication.

MIT doesn't cater to only full-time students -- the university has also established career development programs to empower business leaders and their employees. In a new course titled "Culture Matters: Communicating Effectively in a Global Workplace," that is set to run from June 13 to June 15, Bhaskar Pant and Jane Dunphy will lead participants in a two-day course that addresses issues that can arise from cross-cultural communication at work. The course is piloted by Pant and his colleague, Dunphy, who hails from Canada, where she has experienced the same communication problems from another perspective.

Pant noticed the negative effects of cultural differences in the workplace while working in India around the time of the big Y2K scare - a period that found more businesses hiring workers from India. Pant quickly saw these U.S. employers and their employees from India found it difficult to effectively communicate. And these misinterpretation of one another's intentions only served to cause tension and issues that could have easily been resolved by a bit of cultural understanding. As a result, Pant went on to create a professional development company to address these types of issues, and has since spent years working in the tech industry where he's seen this cross-cultural communication issue only increase as technology enables businesses to grow globally.

Minor differences cause big challenges

Pant wants businesses to understand that cross-cultural communication is something that should be talked about and considered regularly. But, he says, unfortunately, that's not always the case. "In 15 years things have only gotten that much more urgent. If it was something I noticed [in the past], it's that much more needed now. There's been an explosion in the ability to communicate with people across borders with such great ease."

Pant points out that there are far more global teams in the tech industry now than there were 10 or 15 years ago - you might even have coworkers on your team who work on completely different continents. And that means cross-cultural communication is an everyday occurrence for most workers, whether it's in during a conference call, over an email exchange, or even during an in-person meeting at a diverse company. However, no matter the setting, people need to understand how to handle these interactions.

When you're working with colleagues or clients in another country on a regular basis, there are problems that can crop up from a general misunderstanding of each other's cultures. Pant often finds that when these miscommunications arise, people may attribute it to someone being lazy, unresponsive or evasive, when really it boils down to simple cultural differences that can be addressed on both ends. This is referred to as "ethnocentrism," where culturally, we often only view others from our own perspective, without understanding that miscommunications might be as simple as a cultural difference.

 

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