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“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela
Software outsourcing has become a necessity in today’s business environment. However, there is a significant challenge to successful software development outsourcing, especially when the vendor is located in a different country. Cultural differences can make or break a software outsourcing project, which is why it’s essential that you think about ways to improve intercultural communication.
Cultural differences can create significant barriers in communication and can often lead to misunderstandings that result in poor project outcomes. Every culture has its own set of rules, which are taken for granted.
Thus, communicating can be difficult not only because people from another culture don’t know or understand those rules, but also because members of the culture itself often aren’t aware of their own biases.
In most cases, cultural knowledge is assimilated subconsciously rather than taught explicitly, which can make it challenging to identify one’s own shortcomings in terms of intercultural communication.
When it comes to IT outsourcing, looking for ways to improve intercultural communication and acting on them is vital to the success of your project. Here are some strategies you can apply.
It might seem counterintuitive and even a little selfish, but one of the first things you need to do to improve intercultural communications is to become more self-aware by understanding your own cultural background.
Becoming a better communicator is a matter of first understanding your own strengths and weaknesses when communicating.
For example, if you hail from a culture where non-verbal cues are frowned up, you will likely find it difficult to communicate with someone from a culture that relies heavily on such cues.
The goal of becoming more self-aware is to gain an understanding of how you need to adapt when communicating with people from other cultures.
So, if you know you aren’t that good with non-verbal cues, you can work on improving them, especially if you work with people from such cultures.
Likewise, you can also identify areas you need to “tone down.” For example, if you know that you have a penchant for direct and assertive communication, then you know you’ll need to tone it down when working with someone from Japan. The Japanese tend to take a more passive and soft approach to communication, so if you sound like you’re ordering people around, they’ll consider you extremely rude.
The more you learn about yourself, the better able you will be to improve your intercultural communications. This feeds into the next tip, which is all about doing research.
If you know that you will be working with people from a different culture, take the time to do your research. While you’ll never be able to learn everything there is to know about a culture, you can still discover the most important points that could be detrimental to your working relationship.
The goal is to understand the beliefs that lead to how the other party behaves. This is why you should always consider things such as why their perspective might be different and how their beliefs and motivations might affect the way they act.
A European company that produces machines, for example, sold their products in China. Their normal way of working was for the customer to provide a list of technical specifications. The company would then manufacture and ship the product.
A Chinese company, however, expected the supplier to know what is needed, so they didn’t provide technical specifications. The European company asked their sales manager in China to speak to the client to get the specifications.
The sales manager attempted to explain that if he asked the client for specifications, their company would be seen as being incompetent. The European company didn’t stop to think of cultural differences and assumed the sales manager was incompetent.
Of course, not every Chinese company will hold the same beliefs, especially now that China has become more open to western culture. However, it does show how important it is to be sensitive to cultural differences.
One of the best ways to improve intercultural communication is to always start on the right foot by being respectful of other people and their beliefs.
Treating other people with respect often starts with addressing them appropriately. If you aren’t certain what’s acceptable, ask. If you feel that asking might not be a good approach, it’s always a good idea to be more formal.
For example, in the U.S., it’s perfectly acceptable to address someone by their first name, even if they haven’t given you explicit permission to do so. However, in Brazil, it’s customary to address people using an honorific and their surname, at least at first.
While communicating with a person from a different culture, you can ask questions about their culture. However, your interest must be genuine. Despite language and cultural barriers, most people will be able to tell if you aren’t being honest in your intentions.
The goal is to establish a real connection with another person, and you will lose that connection if the other person feels your behavior is forced.
One way to prove you are genuine is through body language. However, you must be careful and do your research first. In some cultures, for example, making eye contact is a sign that you are interested in what they’re saying. In others, it can be considered rude and even hostile.
Language is a serious barrier, so it’s definitely an area to focus on when looking for ways to improve cultural communication.
Slang, for example, is something you should not be using with people from other cultures, especially those for whom English is a second language. When a foreigner learns English, they learn proper grammar and vocabulary.
Slang and idioms can be problematic. At best, they won’t understand what you’re saying. In the worst-case scenario, they could get offended.
For example, using the word “ballpark” as a measurement is pretty standard in the United States and you’re likely to be understood by many other native English speakers too. However, someone from China or India might simply have no clue what you’re talking about. Even worse, out of respect and a desire to avoid a potential confrontation, they might not say they didn’t understand just agree with you.
So, it’s essential that your communication is clear and doesn’t involve words that might create confusion or be misunderstood.
The best way to avoid communication issues is to pay attention and to double check that you understood correctly. It might seem tedious but silly misunderstandings can lead to massive disasters, which is why it’s always best to check. Also, make sure that the other party understood you too.
The easiest way to ensure all-around understanding is by getting everyone to recap what you’ve said and doing the same yourself.
Being willing to meet others halfway does wonders for intercultural communication. Learn a few phrases in their language, even if it’s just to say “hello”, “good-bye”, and “thank you.” This shows respect and proves that you’re conscious of the differences.
This respect will actually make people more understanding and accepting of any mistakes you might make, no matter how egregious. Essentially, they won’t snort and think that you couldn’t be bothered to learn about another culture because it’s beneath you, which often happens.
However, when speaking in another language, make sure that you really know what you’re saying. It’s not uncommon for people to make mistakes in other languages, especially when they aren’t that familiar with said languages.
For example, when General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova to South America, they didn’t understand why their sales were dismal. Eventually, someone realized that “nova” actually means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.
Similarly, when Pepsi entered the Chinese market, they translated their slogan “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave,” which didn’t have the effect they were looking for.
So, when trying to get your message across, make sure to stick to a language you feel comfortable in. It’s better to ask for the help of a translator than to end up with a situation where you think everyone understood what you want, but the opposite is true.
Observation is essential to improve intercultural communications. The more attention you pay to the other person, the easier it is to improve the conversation.
For example, if you pay close attention to your interlocutor, you will more easily pick up non-verbal cues that indicate whether a specific topic is making them uncomfortable. If that’s the case, then you can easily change the conversation or approach the topic from a different angle.
Likewise, observation can also help you find points in common with the person you’re communicating with, which can help to establish a friendlier environment.
Before interacting with someone from a certain culture, try to find coworkers or friends who might know the region they’re from. They can provide you with excellent advice on what you should and shouldn’t do.
If you can’t find someone you know, online forums are an excellent alternative. Expat websites where people share their stories are a great source of information and are very useful because they give you the perspective of someone from your own country.
For example, in Italy, people don’t consider personal space a big issue like they do in the United States. It’s common for people to stand close to each other, or even walk arm in arm without there being a romantic relationship between them. However, for someone who comes from France, for example, this wouldn’t be such a big thing because the culture is similar.
Ask open-ended questions to avoid confusion. If the person you are speaking to has to make their point, it will be easier for you to understand their meaning. It will also ensure that they really do understand the question.
With “yes” or “no” questions, the risk of misunderstandings is far too great. Someone might not understand what you’re saying and not even realize it. If you ask leading questions where they basically have to explain their point, it’s another way of ensuring you got your message across.
If you find yourself in a situation where an aspect of someone else’s culture evokes negative emotions, shut them down and don’t judge. It’s easy to pass judgment on others if you don’t really understand their culture.
Plus, if you mentally assign negative labels to someone, it will make communicating effectively with them impossible.
So, while everyone judges other people in some shape or form, it’s wise to suspend passing judgment until you can say that you truly understand that person’s culture. Otherwise, you might judge it erroneously and end up with a completely mistaken impression.
No matter how much research you do, you will still make mistakes. You’re human and there is absolutely no way for you to pick up all the subtleties of another culture without living and experiencing it for years. Sometimes, not even then.
Most people won’t have any problem overlooking your mistakes as long as you apologize. Generally, you can tell quite quickly that you’ve made a mistake and might have offended someone. So, to smooth things over, apologize just as quickly. However, make sure to ask what you did wrong so you can learn for the future.
Ignoring the situation will just make you seem even more offensive, whereas admitting you didn’t know will go a long way in smoothing over any ruffled feathers.
One of the best ways to improve intercultural communication is to experience other cultures. So, whenever you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture, you should do so. And it doesn’t always have to mean travel.
You can check out areas in your city where people from other cultures congregate and interact with them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions either. You’ll often find that immigrants are more than happy to teach you about their culture and are less likely to get offended because they already understand your culture.