Communicating across cultures with awareness and consideration

Customizing your messaging can lead to better understanding.

The world is more interconnected than ever, and internal communicators must have a holistic view of their audience. It’s especially true for organizations with a multinational presence and employees that span many nationalities and cultures.

But how can you optimize your content to ensure you’re reaching everyone when you have an employee base that comes from so many different cultures and backgrounds – and how can you make your messaging feel genuine? Experts from across the industry shared their tips on using their communications skills to pin down the right methodologies to communicate across cultures and how they reach their global employees.

Approach with awareness and consideration

Communicators need to consider all the different cultural norms of employees across the globe might have when it comes to how they communicate. According to Inez Odom, vice president of professional development at TEAM LEWIS, it’s a major factor.

“Communication styles will differ based upon geographic regions,” Odom said. “[Media professionals need] to prepare ourselves for how we will engage.

“Bring an awareness of your own unique communication style and recognize that you will then need to extrapolate from there.”

Odom went on to share an anecdote about a colleague in how communication differences can create both a barrier and an opportunity for connection.

“An international colleague shared her experience of asking her team, in group meetings, whether or not they had questions. She provided lots of time and space for questions. No one would respond,” Odom said.

“However, after the discussion, she was flooded with questions from individuals. Culturally, asking questions in a group setting was seen as “weak” and team members, at this location, chose not to do so. An awareness of cultural considerations such as word choice, face-saving conventions, colloquialisms, and regionalisms all contribute to finding common ground when communicating cross-culturally.”

Customize your style and segment the audience

A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always the best way to go. According to Amber Micala Arnold, group vice president, DEIJ & corporate reputation, MikeWorldWide, communicators should seek to learn to package their messaging in a way that’s sensitive to the cultural norms and conventions of the audience.

“Take cultural cues from the written and verbal communications of the different audiences you interact with. No culture or audience is a monolith and people tend to have individual preferences on how and when they communicate,” Arnold said.

“Pay attention to things like how they use salutations, honorifics, colloquialisms, levels of formality, intonation, and body language; these characteristics help you to build greater cultural competency and allow you to know when you need to make shifts in your communications.”

Comms pros should pay particular attention to the language they’re using, especially slang, as words can have different meanings in different parts of the world, Arnold added.

“If you are communicating with someone from a different culture than your own, don’t use terms and phrases that they may use to reflect their identity or culture unless you are sure it won’t come offensive or biased,” she said.

A listening ear can bridge gaps

Listening is vitally important in order to know how to properly craft your message. According to Michelle Egan, 2023 PRSA Chair and chief communications officer of Alyeska Pipeline Services Company, organizations should have people on the ground who can help foster cultural understanding.

“I’m a fan of creating a network of trusted advisors or key communicators that are embedded in each culture or location. These allies can help you understand and navigate the nuances of a culture, give you candid feedback and a heads-up on emerging issues,” she said.

Egan added that in-person face time in all the locations of a dispersed organization can help foster greater understanding and connection.

“There is no substitute for showing up and spending time with subgroups of employees. Get curious about their work, their lifestyle, their interests,” she said. “Share a meal, do a job shadow, spend time in the break room. If you’re traveling to a location, don’t be in a rush – spend a night or two and really experience the workplace.”

Outreach across cultures is an effective way to promote organizational unity — and it’s also a path to greater cultural understanding.

“Working with audiences from a range of geographies and cultures is extremely rewarding. It takes patience and a willingness to try new strategies to find what works,” said Egan. “When you learn about their needs and tailor your communication strategies to grow engagement, you’ll get results.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.

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