10 Tips to Communicate Effectively in Cross-Cultural, Virtual Environments


ImageWhat do we do when our colleagues speak a different language and use different communication patterns and styles? How do we pick up on body language and facial expressions we can’t see? Even the tone of voice sounds different over the phone, especially when accents are present and English is spoken as a second language. “Cultural differences don’t disappear in virtual settings just because we can cross boundaries easily with technology — in fact, they are often magnified,” says Anja Langbein, expert on cultural intelligence, and co-founder of the Culture Learning Group.

In a past webinar at Smith College Executive Education for Women, Anja Langbein, offered strategies to manage cross-cultural communications in virtual environments. The biggest communication issues Langbein sees comes from differences between relationship-oriented versus task-oriented cultures, low-context versus high-context communication styles, and individual versus group-oriented ways of thinking. For example, someone from a relationship-oriented culture might respond negatively to a cut-to-the-chase kind of email thinking, “They only write to me when they want something; they don’t care about me at all.” On the other hand, a person from a task-oriented culture might thinking, “I couldn’t care less about the weather in Brasilia. Right now, we have a task to complete.”

Here are some tips Langbein offers that can help break down barriers in virtual environments.

  1. Pick the right medium for the right message. When possible, use “friendly” means such as video conferencing.
  2. Set agendas for meetings and distribute them beforehand. Post profiles of teams members on an online directory.
  3. Be sensitive to time zones.
  4. Ban multitasking during calls and meetings.  Being attentive and fully present in the moment will help you pick up on non-verbal cues.
  5. Listen to understand, don’t interrupt, and speak as though remote participants are in the room.
  6. Be prepared to briefly interrupt your virtual meetings so that colleagues in another part of the world can discuss a certain topic and find consensus.
  7.  Do not expect members of a group-oriented culture to voice their opinions in your meeting.  Avoid putting individuals on the spot unless they volunteer.
  8.  Decisions are likely not going to be made during your virtual meeting.  Follow up individually to secure that your team members understand your expectations.
  9. Set time aside for relationship-building.  Meet face to face every now and then, and hold monthly virtual “meals” to build rapport.
  10. Take a class on intercultural communication and ways to handle conflict.

Consider these tips the next time you pick up the phone or schedule a conference call with your colleagues from across the world.

Do you have a virtual communication tip that you’d like to share? Please comment below.

About Smith College Executive Education

Smith's signature all-female learning environment ignites the power of women and provides an exceptional networking forum where participants share insights and perspectives with a cohort of talented and high-powered peers.
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