Communication is an essential aspect of all relationships, both personal and business. It is the easiest most natural thing in the world, but it is also something that when done incorrectly can have catastrophic repercussions. This is never truer than when related to business and cross-cultural communication.
There are a plethora of problems that can arise when communication is initiated without adequate preparation across cultures. It is often the simplest miscommunications that lead to larger problems later on. Being forewarned about exactly where are how these problems can come up is the best way to exclude them from the conversation.
It is the most obvious and the most common barrier to effective international business communication. It is almost universally accepted as a given now that English is the international language of business, but this does not mean that a native-English speaker can expect to communicate in the same way with a non-native speaker as he or she does on a day-to-day basis with native speakers. The keys to overcoming this most elementary hindrance are for the native-speaker to always speak slowly and clearly, without ever appearing condescending, and to eliminate wherever possible all slang, jargon, idioms, and proverbs that may not be internationally understood.
Different cultures have different social norms and this can lead to different approaches with regards to personal space. This needs to be understood and researched whenever you set out into a new territory as a lack of cultural understanding on this could mean that you are placed in an uncomfortable situation in which you act accordingly, and this in turn could offend your host or guest who will not understand your discomfort. Westerners generally consider an arm’s length of physical personal space to be normal when communicating in a business environment, whereas people from some Latin and Middle Eastern cultures are used to standing at closer quarters when communicating. Whilst it would perhaps be natural for a Westerner to step back at this point, doing so would instil a sense of mistrust in your colleague.
Culturally specific references are a no, no as though unlikely to offend, they will probably be completely meaningless to the person you are trying to communicate with. There is no use launching off into a story about baseball to a group of Danish people, for example. Not only they will struggle to understand the terms, more importantly they will simply not be interested as it is not a sport their nation plays. What then starts as a way of breaking the ice, or adding some levity to the conversation, turns into something awkward and embarrassing, and possibly boring! Who won your country’s latest edition of X-Factor should also not be high on the lists of topics you might think to discuss!
A joke is only funny if the person listening to it gets it and finds its content humorous. As a general rule it is best to avoid jokes at all times. There are other more natural ways of creating an easy-going, friendly mood without resorting to a stand-up routine. The huge issue here is that what may be perfectly acceptable socially in your culture, may not be at all acceptable in another. This can relate to anything from race to gender, religion or sexuality. It is simply a method best left until you find yourself back in the company of your friends back home.
What you don’t say is often equally important as what you do, especially with verbal communication making up only 3% of all that is expressed. Eye contact is perhaps the most obvious example here. In the West a person who doesn’t make eye contact is often thought of as somehow being weak or untrustworthy. In Japan, Latina America, and Africa, however, not making eye contact is actually a sign of respect. Handshakes can also be controversial as in Islamic countries the touching of the hands between men and women who are not married can be looked down upon. It may seem odd, and not be something you agree with, but it is much better to note these differences without comment and adhere to them rather than risk offending somebody and lose potential business.