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Communicating Effectively Between Diverse Cultures Within a Company

Posted by Elena del Valle on August 28, 2018

By Ray Zinn
Author
Tough Things First

Ray Zinn, author, Tough Things First

Ray Zinn, author, Tough Things First

Photo: Ray Zinn

We truly live in a global business environment.

People are mobile. Silicon Valley, where I lead my semiconductor company for 37 years, attracts talented people from across the globe. Any cosmopolitan city does as well. In the age of the Internet, even mom-and-pop companies routinely interact with people in vastly different cultures.

The 21st century reality is that you need to create diversity to thrive. Long gone are the days when all your employees and partners come from one country or one culture. To make it, you have to communicate with a lot of very different people.

Culture and its language

People, even within one country and one ethnicity, have vastly different cultures. If you do not believe that, put a person from the rural south, Hollywood and Chicago into the same room. In this case, the only uniting factors would be that they are Americans and speak English, though there would still be some language barriers thanks to accents, idioms and slang.

Not surprisingly, culture informs language. One’s cultural basis and biases will direct, even contort the use of language. And the bigger your tent, the more cultural and language differences you will encounter. To make your organization work, everyone must communicate. This means everyone has to be ready to communicate with people of different cultures using language that reflects their cultural norms, and even misusing your language.

Fortunately, this is easy, though it does take effort.

Equality is the starting and ending

You cannot earn trust, participation and collaboration when people are treated unequally. However, when faced with cultural frustrations, too many people devolve into self-superior attitudes. Just think of all the horror stories you heard about people shouting at Indian tech support workers when that nation took a strong role in the technical support business.

The respect of equality is the end game when creating a strong organizational culture. To get there you must begin with it. Your organization must have a culture that requires treating everyone with dignity (this was one of the four pillars of my company’s corporate culture, which is detailed in Tough Things First). The tips below are useless if you do not first establish this one principle.

Daily tips for communicating in a diverse organization

• Love people: If you love your people, cultural differences won’t matter. In fact, cultural differences become interesting and even exciting. Approach every person with the idea that they are your friend and that you want to help them. This makes most cultural differences evaporate.

• Talk to them, not over them: There is a natural inclination to modify your speech and, in effect, either talk down to someone, oversimplify your language, or out of frustration, talk past them. If the other person is bright enough to be in your company, then they are bright enough to deal with language and cultural differences as well as you can.

• A big smile wins over anyone: Entering into a conversation with a grumpy face prevents effective exchange. But everyone responds well to a friendly mug. Smiling is free, easy and very effective.

• Pause to decipher: People who are not native speakers of your language have to navigate it. And like most amateur navigators, they are likely to get lost. If what they say confuses you, take a second or two and attempt to decipher what they are saying, using what you know about them and their culture. Do this especially before asking them to repeat themselves (asking them to repeat can be discouraging to them). Often, this small pause allows you to catch up with them.

• Try learning culturally different languages: Culture informs language. Learning a little of any foreign language leads you to understanding some of the cultural underpinnings of its people. It also earns big trust points when you address employees in their own language.

• Always acknowledge people even when passing by: If you fail to acknowledge a person from a different culture, then they may assume you have a bias against their culture, and against them. Smile, wave, say hello (hola, ciao, namaste, salaam, szia, etc.)

• Speak slowly, softly, using simple straight-forward words: Don’t degrade people with baby talk. Just choose words carefully so that the most basic concepts are precisely used. Keep in mind that the listener started by learning the basic concepts first, then expanded.

• Learn and understand the cultural habits, traditions, and holidays: Knowing Māgha Pūjā would surprise most anyone, and delight a new employee from Thailand. But knowing about Māgha Pūjā and why it is important to the Thai culture is what’s important. Māgha Pūjā is the second most important Buddhist festival; a day that aims to not commit any kind of sins; do only good; purify one's mind.

• Encourage cultural mingling at social events: If you go to a typical company event, people of one culture tend to sit together. You will have tables filled with people like one another. Yet, social events are a great place to encourage people of different cultures to sit and share with one another. Plan your seating accordingly.

Value

We are all people, but we are different people. Expecting everyone else to adopt your cultural norms as a prelude to inclusion is both shortsighted and ultimately unprofitable. By communicating effectively with people from other cultures, you add value – to your company, to them, and to you.

Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn is an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, angel, bestselling author and the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley. He is also the founder of a nationally launched ZinnStarter program at colleges around the country, providing the financial and mentoring support for students to launch new products and companies. In 2015, Ray published his first book, Tough Things First, with McGraw Hill. The book covers Zinn’s analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel, a Silicon Valley institution along with the critical factors that entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike need to know.