Some time back, a friend asked me to write about specific challenges that individuals with multicultural experiences face. That really got me thinking. I recollected many of my own challenges when I first came to the US from India, and how those evolved over time. I also started intentionally observing my friends who grew up in one country, and live in another. I discussed with them the challenges they face, and solutions that work for them.
What came out of this is a series of topics which I will cover in the entire month of April. I am sure there will be more in future as I notice more.
If you have noticed or faced such specific roadblocks, share those in the comments below. I am sure you will be helping many others who are also wondering about the same.
The most common hurdle I faced is learning how to communicate effectively across the boundaries of cultures. That’s what I am going to talk about today.
Here are some common problems I observed. They may arise all at once or at different stages as you integrate into a new culture.
1. Feeling lack of confidence (or even shame) about your speaking skills in a non-native language keeps you from fully enjoying conversations and participating in social gatherings.
2. You are not sure if what you say will be deemed appropriate so you choose to keep quiet instead. That lack of participation in a conversation can be misunderstood as your inability or unwillingness to develop friendships.
3. Often times you do not say the right things, and turn people off which in turn fosters your fear in point number 2. This results in a vicious cycle that unless broken causes you to shy away from multicultural interactions essential for your integration and growth.
4. Even when your talent and skills get you a managerial role at work, you cannot shine in it because you do not fully “get” how to inspire, motivate, or course-correct you team. This problem is clearly not unique to multicultural individuals. However the barriers of culture and language make it worse for them than the natives.
5. Your communication style has become such a hodgepodge that it feels like you belong neither in your country where you grew up nor in the country where you are living right now. This is a difficult feeling to tackle because you feel like you are rejected by both cultures. You cannot fully relate with any of the cultures.
Does this sound like you? Then hang tight, my friend. I am going to give you some tips that have helped me overcome these challenges, and become an effective communicator. The process of learning never stops. But I can assure you that with conscious thought and effort you will become a communicator that you aspire to be.
1. Understand the culture
Communication is more than just spoken or written words. Communication is a complex mixture of words, facial gestures, body language, and tone of voice. In fact only 7% of what you communicate while speaking comes through your words. That means the other 93% can easily make or break your relationships and career. So focus on internalizing the right body language, and vocal tone.
This learning becomes a slightly more challenging when you don’t know what is considered “right” in a social setting. Which is exactly the challenge you face in a new culture. Body language, usage of certain words can have totally different meanings in different cultural contexts. What you see as acceptable may not be what they deem appropriate.
Ultimately, communication is not about what you say, but what others hear. So in order to be a good communicator, you have to have curiosity to really understand the other culture, and how it is different than yours.
For example, I had a classmate from Egypt in my MBA classes. We were a team of 2 men and 3 women in our study group. He hardly made an eye contact with women in our group.
One day as I was talking to a woman teammate, we started discussing about this. Being from India, my reading of this action was that he is shy. I always cut him a slack because of that.
On the other hand, the American teammate thought that he was rude so she always had a slightly negative feeling about him. The same action, but such different interpretations of it. The result was that neither of us felt like he wants to be our friend.
Finally by the third or fourth week, I took it upon myself to ask him why he behaves so. And his answer completely startled me! He clarified that he does not want to disrespect the women by looking them in the eyes. When I told him about how we felt, he was equally shocked. 😉
The best part that came out of this, was the learning for all of us. Slowly he learned to make an eye contact with women. By the end of the quarter, he comfortably delivered a presentation to the entire class without “ignoring” women, and even became friends with some of us.
On the other hand, we all learned a great lesson not to interpret others’ actions from our lenses. Clarity is the key. And as obvious as it sounds, we often forget that “communicating” is essential in communication. Don’t rely on others to initiate it. When faced with negative emotions or doubt, remind yourself that it never hurts to confirm even if you think you know something for sure. Ask respectfully what it means.
2. Create advisors
When you are in a new culture or learning a new language, there is no better experience than learning it from a native. My fastest progress in English and the US culture has come through my friends and colleagues.
Here is what I did.
I started asking my friends and colleagues whatever I did not understand. Of course, I was mindful not to bombard them with constant questions that would interrupt the flow of a conversation. But if I did not understand a word or a colloquial phrase on which a conversation depended, I would ask them without hesitation what it meant. That unintentionally showed them my interest in the conversation, and also my curiosity to learn.
For me, I enjoyed the conversations much more when I actually understood those. 😉
I have learned everything from college football (American football) jargon to the difference between corny and cheesy just by asking my friends.
Secondly, I urged them to correct my pronunciation, grammar, and the sentence structure when they find it odd or wrong. It took them some time to feel comfortable with it. But when I made clear how much it helps me, they came on board.
This one time, I had just given a fabulous speech campaigning for a friend who was a candidate for an election at an organization. We were celebrating her win and my smooth public speaking skills, when one of my friends pointed out that I was not saying the word “Success” right. I did not hear (and sometimes still don’t) the difference in my pronunciation and theirs but as per them I was saying something that sounded like “Suck – sex”.
You can imagine the looks on the faces of the restaurant patrons at nearby tables when they heard me practicing “Success” for 50 times – with no luck. 😉 It definitely made for a hilarious discussion then, and still does now. We reminisce over the fond and funny memory every time we meet.
In a nutshell, make your friends and colleagues your advisors. Make them feel comfortable in correcting you. You will not only learn the language but also the culture. As a side bonus, you will be blessed with new friends who care about your progress, and will make some funny memories that you can share at a family gathering 😀
3. Hang out with natives, and people from other cultures
You must be thinking, “Did I not get this from the above two points!”
I am sure you did! But I cannot emphasize this enough. The biggest communication mistake immigrants make is not in the communication, but in socializing. Don’t do it!
It is only natural to feel more comfortable with people from your own country. But that limits your possibilities in receiving a truly multicultural experience which is a big part of your immigration decision (I hope!). It will keep you in your shell of comfort but will slow down your growth.
Find places to make connections with people from outside your culture. Even if they are not natives from the country you live in, you will still develop the much needed empathy for cultural differences. You will start looking at your own culture from their eyes which will shed light on factors you had not noticed before.
In fact, by understanding other cultures, you will also fathom your own culture better than you ever did before. That will not only make you a better communicator in the new culture but also in your own culture.
Another important result is that you will develop your confidence. You will appreciate how difficult it is being multilingual. It is a skill that can be developed, and something you should be proud of. In my experience, many Americans are so, so appreciative of the fact that you speak more than one language, and that you are trying your best to be effective in their language.
You will also meet others that are not as good at it. That will give you some relief that you are not alone. You can even form practice groups for speaking.
One of the best decisions of my life was to join Toastmasters International. I met people from all different cultures there who were willing and able to support and help me in my quest of learning to be a better communicator. It is also an instant connection for networking when you move to a new area. There are clubs all over the world. Check out one in your area. No matter which level you are at – learning a new language or learning to use an already learned language more effectively – you will not be disappointed with what you get out of it.
4. Seek coaching
Toastmasters is one venue. But there are also others. Practice and coaching are the keys to learn what you don’t know. Like anything else, many times you don’t even know what you are missing, until you hear or see a professional doing it.
The lessons from experts are worth it! Because let’s face it, communication can make or break your career and relationships.
It amazes me how many people complain that nobody hears them in a meeting, or their team does not respect them, or they have a conflict with their boss but cannot resolve it, and yet when I ask them what the problem is, they share everything but communication skills. Don’t be THAT oblivious! If you are not getting through to others, the underlying problem is almost always your lack of inspiring them to do what you want them to do.
Once you learn that skill, you will rise in your career faster than before. Your time and money investment will pay you back within weeks!
Plus these days, there are so many free resources available for such training. Google if their are blogs or webinars speaking about this. Attend the events or workshops that are offered at your work and by local organizations. Just because they are free, does not mean they are not valuable.
There are conferences on this topic. Attend those. I know Toastmasters has 2 conferences a year – one in Spring and one in Fall. The attendance fee is very reasonable, and totally worth the investment.
You can find a buddy to mingle with from the registrants speaking about the conference you want to attend, on social media. (Insider tip – use the event # tag search.) Connect with them beforehand. There! Now you don’t even have an excuse of saying it feel awkward to do it alone.
And please, do not dig the well when you become thirsty. I hate it when friends come to me to learn interview skills, a week before the interview. If it were that easy, everybody would be doing it already, and I wouldn’t be talking about it!
So the lesson here is invest time, money, and effort in your progress. If your goal is to be an effective manager, respected professional, and influential human being, communication skills are not optional!
5. Don’t disrespect or undermine your own culture
When you are exposed to different cultures for extended periods of time, you develop affinity for some aspects of those that do not exist in your own culture. It is great to take the best of both worlds! But the problems happen when you start pointing out the worse in your culture when you visit home. Then you appear like a smartass.
I am still learning this. Being the outspoken person that I am, I tend to blurt out what I see can be improved.
Here, I can speak for my experiences in India because that’s what I have seen. For example, I have seen many Indian immigrants who speak English half the time when they are there. Well, naturally that will alienate you from the locals. I have myself tried to preach others on importance of being on time only to realize that has made me unpopular.
On the other side, I see some of my American friends visiting other countries and suddenly start talking about smaller portion sizes or eating farm fresh food. Again, occasional feedback is great, but if you constantly put others down on their actions that they may not have seen done any differently, you are only hurting them rather than helping. In the process you are making more enemies than friends.
Just as you would not constantly flaunt what is great about your home country in another country, do not show off your newly found wisdom when you visit your home country. You are lucky to have traveled places and gained valuable experience which has shaped your views. Do not force that on to others, and do not look down upon them because they do not have it.
Granted that the constant conflict in your mind to switch between languages and cultures can be stressful. But take that on as a challenge. After all, you are too smart not to tackle new challenges, right? 😉
Being good communicator across the boundaries of cultures, means adapting your communication style according to the culture you are in or communicating with. This is the highest form of communication competency in my opinion. You can do it only if you have practice, compassion, and agility in your brain cells.
Try to speak only in the language that you first started talking in. Respond to people in the language in which they initiated the communication. Avoid the temptation to pollute it with the words from another language that you use more frequently.
Indians, this is going to be especially hard for most of you since you speak more than two languages. Believe me, it is not an easy task but the one that will stretch your brain’s capacity and increase focus, while earning you respect for your mastery over multiple languages. You will appreciate your mother-tongue, and the nuances in it with a new energy. You will develop tremendous respect for those who speak your mother-tongue flawlessly.
Next time, try to be patient and understanding of a point of view that is not same as yours. Because believe it or not, the world is running just fine there as it does here. Just because your precious input is not in it, does not make it a chaos.
When it comes to cultural differences, nothing is right or wrong; it’s just different. What seems to need improvement in my newly shaped perspective, may not at all be needed in the original mix where hardly anyone thinks like me.
Now here is my question to you. Please share your answers in the comments.
Which of these 5 ways do you you think will benefit you the most right now? How do you plan to implement it in your life?
If you continue to practice these 5 ways, you will become the envy of modern professionals in this globalized world. We live in the world that is becoming more multi-cultural by the day. You do, and will continue to interact with people from all different cultures. The immigration is only going to be more commonplace, and easier in future.
Embrace this change. Start building your skills to succeed in such a diverse world. Master communicating and inspiring people from as many different cultures as possible. You definitely do not want to fall behind, when the time comes but should be ready to grab the unique opportunities that a multi-cultural environment presents.
Wishing you all the best in your quest to become an effective cross-cultural communicator!