Active Listening & Empathy: How to Communicate More Openly Across Cultures

Part of walking around in someone else’s skin, in their experience, requires knowing what their experience is in the first place.

This is where active listening comes in.

Why We Don’t Listen Well

Like empathy, itself, active listening is a conscious process.

You can’t leave your ears open and turn your brain off and assume that, just by nodding along, you are honing your listening skills.

Business relations are fueled by the powerful psychological tool of active listening.

Why?

Because active listening results in mutual understanding.

Think of your last face-to-face conversation.

Do you recall what your conversation partner spoke about? In how much detail could you relate what they said?

If your account recalls more of your side of the conversation than theirs, you may want to ask yourself two questions:

1) Are you talking more than listening?

2) Are you even listening when you’re not talking?

We are often distracted while in conversation, splitting our attention between thinking about what we will next share and listening.

Particularly when the dialogue is more of a debate, we tend to turn our ears off, as we’re more focused on formulating our response than we are in taking in another’s conflicting point of view.

Assumptions are made, because we’ve all heard the “talking points” before. So, whether or not the other is making a new and interesting point, we assume they’re rattling off old news.

The focus, then, is on winning the argument.

But the argument would be much more constructive if both parties opened their ears.

The Structure of Active Listening

  1. Focus
    When active listening, your focus should be on the speaker.
    Put down your phone, look directly at the speaker, turn the part of you off that is already formulating your argument, and really listen to what the speaker is saying.
    If you are multitasking or otherwise distracted, you aren’t giving your full attention and consideration to your partner.
  2. Repeat
    The speaker should also be aware that they’re being heard.
    One way to show you’re listening is to repeat what the speaker has said back to them in a way that recounts what you’ve picked up.
    For instance, the speaker is sharing a personal issue with you. After listening to their issue in its entirety without interrupting, you might respond, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re saying…” followed by a summary of what you’ve been told.
    You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying; but in reformulating what you’ve heard in your own words, you are validating their perspective in that you’ve listened with focus and fully understood them.
    It also helps you, as the listener, switch perspective.
    Sometimes you’ll find your own cultural framework has made you misinterpret something.
    By repeating, the speaker can see that you didn’t quite understand them and clear up their perspective, making this communication more effective.
  3. Open Up
    When in cultural conflict, one is often defensive and refuses to see their opponent’s situational perspective.
    Our natural instinct is to then not listen at all and only to have our voices heard.
    We lash out and might even get personal, which is not effective in bridging the divide.
    Active listening combats that, making both parties feel heard and allowing people to open up.
    A solution is more likely to be arrived at through active listening than through combative conflict.

Through empathy and the tools we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, you’ll be able to better communicate and deal with conflict cross-culturally.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

How Business Communications & Negotiations Differ Across Cultures: Rule- Vs. Relationship-Based

When you walk into a Western office, any Western office, you know that there are rules.

They are hardline rules, and they apply to everyone, across the board.

Western cultures (“Western” meaning the US and Europe) are rule-based cultures.

In countries where equality and justice for all are building blocks upon which society is built, this rigidity in rule-following makes perfect sense. Rules provide objective guidelines for companies, for government, for society as a whole.

Relationship-based cultures, on the other hand…

Relationship-Based Cultural Communication

Negotiation is the basis of relationship-based cultures. Even when it comes to “the rules.”

Managers in relationship-based cultures dictate these rules, and so the better the relationship you have with said managers, the better stacked you are at the negotiation table.

Anything and everything can be negotiated in such cultures.

This leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, something Westerners aren’t very comfortable with when it comes to the workplace.

Being as such, communicating within relationship-based cultures requires one to keep in mind a complex network of human relationships.

Rule-Based Cultural Communication

The company rules in a rule-based culture (like those in the West) are spelled out; they’re explicit. Unless a worker hopes to be fired, he follows the rules.

In fact, the rules laid out by Western managers are communicated directly, and they are often compiled in various written resources.

Most American companies have thousands of pages of rules, included in such documents as the company’s mission statement and vision, their HR handbooks, compliance handbooks, job descriptions and responsibilities, expense regulations, strategies, etc.

Written regulations, above all else, are spelled out for you. Personal preferences and favored relationships don’t apply (at least, they shouldn’t in theory).

This allows managers to communicate within a set of rules. They, therefore, often communicate directly, unambiguously, and concisely.

Negotiation

Considering each culture’s values and the way these values impact communication, negotiating tactics are extremely different across these two cultural types.

When negotiating in rule-based cultures, one often uses a direct approach, as the rules are objective, and disputes can subsequently be resolved using said rules.

In relationship-based cultures, where rules are not black and white, courtesy and saving face is the most important part of a negotiation.

A Western manager must go into a negotiation with the business partner of a relationship-based culture focused on building and maintaining a relationship, rather than with a strategic focus on “the rules.”

Americans and other Western cultures see business as business and not personal. There are rules, so negotiations can get tough, without partners walking away from the table with a broken personal relationship.

But with a relationship-based business partner, you can’t negotiate tough and then expect your partner to amiably join you in a round of golf.

This may be the norm in America, but not in China nor in Japan.

Instead, business and personal are intertwined, so the relationship must be cared for above all else.

Next week, we’ll talk about bridging this understanding.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.