Communicating across cultures can be tricky for many reasons. When you’re speaking in a language that isn’t your first language, you’re more likely to run into miscommunication and cultural barriers. Luckily, there are a few ways you can curb some of this uncomfortable confusion.
Tips for Communicating With Other Cultures
No matter what cultural group you plan on communicating with, chances are that your experience will differ from communicating with someone from your own culture. These tips will get the convo started.
1. Learn About Other Cultures
The first step to communicating with other cultures is to actually do a little recon. Researching someone’s cultural background shows that you’re interested in them — and it’s considered extremely polite in the eyes of many cultures around the world!
Do a little research on foods, customs, and basic phrases. Learning Spanish? Rent a few Spanish-language movies on Netflix! Even if you plan on speaking in your native language, you’ll look like a rockstar to the other person. It also shows you have respect for cultural diversity.
2. Memorize Common Phrases in Other Languages
One of the best tips for learning a new language is to learn the most common phrases first.
Learning common phrases in another language is an easy(ish) way to show others you’re willing to meet them halfway. In many cultures, it’s considered polite to try to understand the native language (even just a few words of it). This can also help you get your foot in the door with another person.
Common words and phrases you might want to learn include:
- Hello in other languages
- How are you?
- Do you need the bathroom?
- I’m sorry
- Does that make sense?
- I understand
Understanding these very simple phrases can help bridge the gap between cultures and take some of the pressure off others. Luckily, there are plenty of resources for learning common Chinese phrases, common French phrases, and common phrases in other languages.
3. Download a Translation App
Translation apps have come a long way in the past few years alone. (Yet, some free apps, like Google Translate, aren’t as accurate as many paid apps.)
These days, you can translate words, phrases, and even entire sentences. These apps are a great way to help learn new words and phrases as well.
Imagine you’re having a conversation in a language you’re not fluent in — or, having a conversation in your native language with a non-fluent speaker. You’re getting by just fine. Just fine until you can’t figure out how to say ‘clothes hanger’ in Spanish, and your miming skills aren’t doing the trick.
Using a translation app can help get you past a hurdle that might otherwise be too high to cross. The Vocre app can translate words, sentences, and phrases in real-time! Get it on the Apple store or Google Play.
Heading on a last-minute trip? Check out the best travel apps for last-minute travel!
4. Use Basic Language
One of the most common communication challenges is word choice.
Within our own culture, we’re so used to the way people speak colloquially. Even when you travel to different areas of the U.S., you’ll find a wide variety of slang and jargon.
In the Midwest, locals ask for a can of pop (instead of soda); on the East Coast, residents might say something is ‘wicked’ good instead of ‘really’ good. On the West Coast, locals often use the phrase ‘tennis shoes’ to mean any type of sneakers.
Try not to use jargon or slang when speaking in a language that isn’t your first language — or when speaking to someone whose first language isn’t the same as yours.
Most students learn slang and colloquialism only after they learn the most common phrases and words. Try to think about the types of words you learned first when learning a new language.
Communication strategies such as these can prevent your listener from feeling overwhelmed or confused.
5. Improve Your Own Communication Skills
It’s easy to just assume that someone doesn’t understand or ‘get’ you because of a language barrier. But we so very rarely get the opportunity to be good listeners and good communicators.
Try to be an active listener. Don’t just absorb what the other person is saying; try to actively listen and determine if you’re understanding the other person. Pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues. Use nonverbal cues (such as nods or head tilts) to convey understanding or confusion.
6. Speak Slowly and Enunciate
People from many English speaking countries are used to talking fast, but this type of speech pattern can create even more language barriers.
Speak slowly (but not so slowly that your listener feels talked down to) and enunciate your words.
It isn’t easy understanding someone whose accent is very different from yours. The U.S. alone has hundreds of local accents!
Imagine if you’re from Japan and learned to speak English from a British teacher. Listening to a person with a heavy Maine accent might not even sound like English to you.
7. Encourage Clarification Feedback
Sometimes we think someone understands our words — when that isn’t the case at all. In the same sense, it’s easy for others to assume they understand us and miss our message altogether.
Encourage your listener to offer feedback and ask for clarification. Many cultures see asking questions as rude, and some cultures will wait until you stop speaking to ask for clarification.
Ask for feedback often to avoid confusion.
8. Don’t Use Complex Sentence Structure
Many of us are used to speaking the way we do with our friends, family, and colleagues — not people from other cultures. We often use big words and complex sentence structures (even though these complex structures might not seem so complicated to us!)
If you’re speaking in your native language, gauge the tone of your partner in conversation, and try to match that person’s language level of complexity. This way, you won’t leave others in the dark, and you won’t offend other people by ‘talking down’ to them.
9. Don’t Ask Yes or No Questions
One of the biggest mistakes in cross-cultural communication is asking too many yes or no questions. Some cultures consider it bad manners to use negative language, such as the word ‘no’.
In some areas of the world, such as Mexico City, you’ll find that locals avoid saying ‘no’ altogether. Instead of saying no, many locals simply shake their heads no, smile, and say thank you instead.
It isn’t easy avoiding yes or no questions, but this tactic is a great communication tool in general. Instead of asking someone if they have any questions, say, “Can you highlight anything I might have missed?”
10. Notice Body Language — But Don’t Judge Based on It
It’s easy to just assume that someone understands you. In many cultures, we’re used to students raising their hands and interrupting the teacher. Yet, many cultures won’t interrupt, so it’s up to the speaker to notice body language and adjust the message accordingly.
Notice facial expressions and other nonverbal communication cues. If a listener looks confused, try to rephrase your statement. If your listener laughs seemingly inappropriately at a comment, don’t just gloss over that. You may have used a sentence structure or word that means something completely different to someone from another culture.
That being said, don’t assume a response is negative or positive simply based on body language, as body language can have different messages within different cultures.
11. Never ‘Talk Down’ to Someone in Your Native Language
It’s easy to want to overexplain. Overexplaining often comes from a good place, but it can have negative effects.
Try to gauge the other person’s comfort level and language experience. If you’re speaking in your native language, strike a balance of clear, concise speech.
Overexplaining can sometimes come off as speaking down to someone — especially when that person isn’t a native speaker of your language. You might want to gauge the other person’s comprehension level before assuming he or she won’t understand you.
Many people from other cultures are often spoken down to (especially when speaking English) because the native speaker simply assumes he or she won’t understand.
12. Be Kind to Yourself and Others
It’s important to have plenty of patience when you’re speaking to someone in a language that isn’t your first language (or when you’re speaking to someone who isn’t speaking their first language!).
When it comes to communication of any kind (cross-cultural communication or not), don’t rush.
Cultural differences are always going to seem more prevalent at the moment. Don’t rush to speak, don’t rush to respond, and don’t rush to judge.