How Culture Can Impact Communication in the Workplace

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It’s no secret that culture can have a big impact on communication. Just think about how much harder it is to communicate with someone from a different country who doesn’t speak your language.

But culture can affect communication even when everyone speaks the same language.

Different cultures have different ways of communicating, and if you’re not aware of these differences, it can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. There are many ways that culture can affect communication in the workplace. In this article, I’ll give you some tips about how to be aware of the impact of culture on communication at work and how to create an environment that is inclusive.

The basics

Culture can be a complex concept, but in general, it refers to the ways in which a group of people interact with each other and the world around them.

There are many different factors that can contribute to cultural differences, such as geography, history, age, language, workplace, and religion – and that doesn’t even include the organizational cultural aspects of bringing together different businesses, suppliers, and consultants to work on a project together.

It’s a bit of a stereotype, but people from collectivist cultures tend to be more indirect communicators, while those from individualist cultures tend to be more direct.

This can lead to misunderstandings if someone from a collectivist culture perceives something as being too direct or confrontational, while someone from an individualist culture may perceive something as being too vague or passive-aggressive.

Body language

Another way that culture affects communication is through nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions.

These cues can be interpreted differently by people from different cultures. For example, in the United States, eye contact is often interpreted as a sign of interest or attentiveness.

However, in some cultures, such as those in Asia, too much eye contact may be seen as a sign of disrespect.

These cues often mean different things in different cultures, so what might be seen as friendly and open body language in one culture could be seen as aggressive or threatening in another. So what can you do about all this? And how can you head off problems by building a culturally-aware team?

Start with awareness

The first step is awareness – knowing that there are differences between cultures and that these differences can impact communication. Once you’re aware of the potential for misunderstanding, you can take steps to avoid it.

For example, if you’re working with an international project team, it’s likely you’ll have team members from a variety of cultures. A country does not equal a culture in a one-to-one relationship (as countries could have different cultures within them, plus there is organizational culture to take into account), but as a lazy rule of thumb, it’s a starting point. The more nationalities on your project team, the greater the risk of challenges.

And the more awesome the team is likely to be.

Cultural differences are not, by default, a bad thing!

It’s worth understanding what kinds of culture you have in the team. Even bringing different organizations together can create a culture clash, for example, between informal workplaces and those that have strict project governance and processes.

More examples:

  • If the team includes someone from a collectivist culture, you might want to be more explicit and clear in your communication to avoid any misunderstanding.
  • If you’re working with someone from a culture that uses a lot of nonverbal cues, you might want to pay more attention to those cues to get a better understanding of what they’re trying to communicate.

By being aware of the potential for misunderstanding and taking steps to avoid it, you can help ensure that communication in the workplace is effective and productive.

How culture can impact communication in the workplace

When you think about how culture can affect communication in the workplace, it’s important to consider the different ways that people communicate. We all communicate differently based on our own cultural backgrounds and experiences.

And when you’re working with people from different cultures, it’s important to be aware of the potential communication barriers that may exist. One way that culture can affect communication is through the use of nonverbal communication.

This is the type of communication that includes things like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. It’s estimated that nonverbal communication makes up about 60-70% of all human communication, which means it can be a very powerful tool.

However, nonverbal communication can also be very difficult to interpret, especially if you’re not familiar with the culture of the person you’re communicating with. For example, in some cultures, direct eye contact is considered to be a sign of respect.

However, in other cultures, direct eye contact is considered to be rude or aggressive. Another way that culture can affect communication is through the use of language.

The language barrier

If you’re working with someone who speaks a different language, there’s obviously going to be a communication barrier.

Even if you’re both speaking the same language, there can still be misunderstandings if you’re not familiar with the different dialects and slang that are used in different cultures.

On one of my projects, we worked with an international team, including many colleagues from a supplier organization based in Spain. While the European and organizational cultures were similar in many respects, we occasionally had language barrier issues over technical terms or particular nuances of language.

We were able to get over them by taking a creative approach to conversation, with lots of diagrams, using video, waving of hands, and using alternative words and examples.

Even when two people speak the same language, there can be cultural differences in the way that words are used, which can create barriers to understanding.

For example, in the United States, the word “boss” is often used to refer to the person in charge of a company or organization. However, in some cultures, the word “boss” has a negative connotation and is used to refer to a person who is demanding and difficult to work for.

Engaging stakeholders with good communication means more than just being able to speak their language. It also means understanding and adapting to each other’s way of communicating.

Sorry, can I just interrupt…

Finally, culture can also affect communication by creating different expectations about the way that communication should take place. For example, in some cultures, it’s considered to be very rude to interrupt someone who is speaking.

However, in other cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable to interrupt someone if you have something important to say. If you are not aware of the cultural norms of the people you are communicating with, you may accidentally offend them or make them feel uncomfortable.

I’m sure I’ve offended a few people in the past with my sarcastic take on life ?

These are just a few of the ways that culture can affect communication in the workplace.

Building relationships

Culture can also affect communication by making it more difficult to build relationships. When people are from different cultures, they may have different values and beliefs.

This can make it difficult to find common ground and build trust. Engaging stakeholders is so important for project success, so anything you can do to overcome challenges is definitely going to be worth it.

However, despite the challenges, it is possible to build cross-cultural relationships. We do it all the time. I’m sure you have friends from different backgrounds, countries, or cultures, and don’t think that your relationship is anything odd – workplace relationships should be the same.

Let’s say you are backfilling a position. When you bring someone on to the team quickly, the onboarding process has to work to make them feel welcomed and included, and being aware of (and open to addressing instead of just ignoring) any cultural differences will help build those trusted working relationships faster.

The key is to be aware of the ways that culture may affect communication and to adjust your communication style accordingly.

Address cultural differences to promote inclusion

In today’s business world, we’re more connected than ever before. With technology, it’s easy to communicate with people all over the world.

But even with all of this technology, there can still be misunderstandings. That’s because we come from different cultures and communicate differently.

When we don’t take the time to understand these differences, it can lead to problems. That’s why it’s so important to address cultural differences to promote inclusion.

Here are a few ways to do that.

1. Be aware of your own cultural biases

We all have them.

And when we’re not aware of them, they can lead to problems. For example, if you’re from a culture that values direct communication, you might not understand why someone from a culture that values indirect communication is being so “roundabout.”

By being aware of your own cultural biases, you can avoid making assumptions and just make people feel like they fit in.

Read next: Overcoming bias in project management

2. Make an effort to understand others

If you’re working with someone from an organization that is different from your own, take the time to learn about their working style, preferences, and the cultural norms that they take for granted.

  • What are their values?
  • What is their communication style?
  • What are their customs and traditions?

The more you know about someone’s culture, the better you’ll be able to communicate with them. And the more you’ll be able to balance, integrate and include ways of working that benefit everyone and help you achieve more together.

3. Respect other cultures

Do I even need to say this? Respect is key when it comes to promoting inclusion. When you respect someone’s culture, it shows.

And when people feel respected, they’re more likely to feel included. People who feel valued are more likely to answer your emails, turn up to meetings and take part in your projects.

4. Be open to doing things differently

In order to promote inclusion, you need to be open to change. Just because something is the way it’s always been done as far as you are concerned doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.

By being open to change, you can learn new things and find new ways of doing things that are more inclusive, different, better, and broader. You can open doors and minds to seeing things in another way. And you’ll learn something, too.

5. Celebrate diversity

Diversity should be celebrated, not tolerated. When you celebrate diversity, it sends a strong message of inclusion.

How can you build differences into your project communications plan? What can you do to celebrate the contributions of individuals in their team, their heritage, and their culture? And if the team is mainly one culture with a few people from a different culture, don’t ‘other’ them by making a big deal of their holidays while ignoring to mark your own. If we celebrate diversity, we should do it for everyone.

These are just a few ways to address cultural differences to promote inclusion. By making an effort to understand and respect other cultures, you can create a more inclusive environment for everyone.

Common questions about how culture affects communication

How is culture related to communication?

Culture affects communication in a variety of ways. It can influence how people communicate with each other, what language they use, and the types of communication that are considered appropriate.

Culture can also affect the way people interpret communication from others.

Does culture affect a person’s communication skills?

Culture affects communication by shaping the way people interact with each other. It can influence the way people communicate by dictating what is considered appropriate behavior and what is not.

Culture also affects the way people interpret communication, which can lead to misunderstandings.

Culture can have a big impact on communication in the workplace. By being aware of the ways that culture can affect communication, you can take steps to avoid misunderstanding and ensure that communication is effective.

If you’re looking for ways to improve your project management skills, consider signing up for a course or workshop on tools and techniques. There are many online and offline options available (including some fab courses that I teach), so you can find something that fits your schedule and learning style. With the right training, you’ll be able to confidently manage projects of all sizes and complexity levels.

Key takeaways

So what have we covered? In this article, you learned about the impact of culture on communication at work through body language, the language barrier, and building relationships. We looked at 4 different ways to address and celebrate cultural differences.

Key things to remember are:

  • Culture can affect communication in many ways, both positive and negative. It is important to be aware of these effects and to adjust your communication style accordingly.
  • Culture can affect communication by creating different expectations about the way that communication should take place.
  • Be aware of different cultural norms to avoid misunderstandings.
  • We all have cultural biases, so it’s important to be aware of them. Be open to learning about and respecting other cultures to promote inclusion.

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