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Cross-Cultural Communication: Success Comes from Within

At its core, successful cross-cultural communication isn’t so much about understanding another culture as it is about understanding your own culture, and realizing that it fits into a larger collection of behaviours and ideologies.
October 10, 2019


Culture is the taken for granted.

When people know they will be interacting with one or more individuals from another culture, they may do research to find out about the customs, learn a few words and phrases in the language, if it is different from their own, or look into small acts they can do to show respect. These are nice things to do. They will likely be appreciated and may help make a good impression, but it is important to recognize that these actions do not reach the core of cross-cultural communication. They do not teach us how to communicate well with people from other cultures, and quite frankly, takes a lot of work. In addition, researching a culture isn’t always plausible, as cross-cultural interactions are not always planned affairs. For these reasons and more, it is important to understand core ways in which to improve cross-cultural communication, without having any extra information about a particular culture.

Defining culture

Although most commonly considered a group of people from one country or region, culture is so much finer than that. Generalized rules about what different cultures do and do not appreciate can easily be misguided. Different cultures can exist within the same city, let alone the same country, and can be defined by a number of characteristics including the language spoken, financial status, job, religion, and other factors that are a part of each person’s life.

That lens might actually be a perfectly useful lens to have most of the time, but it's different if we know we're using it. 

Andrew Ryder Andrew Ryder

Dr. Andrew Ryder, Associate Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, says there is one definition of culture that really resonates with him: “Culture is the taken for granted.” It means that culture is everything we don’t think about in our day-to-day interactions – for instance, how much eye contact is appropriate during a conversation, how loudly we should speak, and what gestures we make with our hands. These little details that we ignore most of the time become much more noticeable when we discover that others do not follow the same guidelines.

It’s not about the details

Although it is these little details – the taken for granted – that define culture, cross-cultural communication is not about memorizing which behaviours and actions belong to which groups of people. Whether the communication is between people coming from opposite sides of the world, or from the same city, what makes a successful interaction is an inward look at one’s own culture, and an understanding of what that means.

Each person is viewing the world through his or her own cultural lens. “That lens might actually be a perfectly useful lens to have most of the time, but it’s different if we know we’re using it,” Ryder says. By having a look at one’s own culture and one’s own biases, a person can more easily establish themselves in unfamiliar cross-cultural situations. “It doesn’t stop you from drawing conclusions, but it stops you from drawing knee-jerk conclusions.”

It expands [the] set of possibilities of the kinds of things people might be concerned with, might do.

Checking your cultural lens ties nicely into a method that Ryder uses in cultural-clinical psychology, but that also applies pretty perfectly in many cross-cultural situations. By experiencing other cultures, and understanding the different behaviours, ideologies, and traditions that exist, we can develop a database of information to pull from when communicating cross-culturally. Rather than trying to understand that a person from a certain country does things a certain way, we recognize that any person from anywhere could do things in any number of different ways. “It expands [the] set of possibilities of the kinds of things people might be concerned with, might do,” Ryder says.   

How to use this information

Understanding and expanding this set of possibilities allows us to slow down and take a step back from our own culture for a minute in order to recognize that of the individuals with whom we wish to communicate successfully, and ask questions about our perception of their behaviour.

Assumptions impede our ability to communicate, so with an ever-expanding comprehension of how people may be, we can work to break down cross-cultural barriers by asking questions, demonstrating empathy and really listening to what people are telling us.


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