Build Cultural Awareness & Communication Skills

Written by Sterling Content
November 10, 2023


Written by Sterling Content
November 10, 2023

In today’s increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the importance of working well in an intercultural environment has never been clearer. However, doing that effectively and productively requires much more than simply embracing diversity or understanding other cultures.

Developing strong professional relationships, partnerships and networks in a global setting requires building an awareness of how and why culture influences behaviour. With this foundation, businesspeople can then take steps to ensure their communication style delivers results while fostering trust and inclusivity.

These concepts were addressed at an event hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei and the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan, led by Brian Mc Closkey, CEO of Taipei-based NextGen Corporate Language Training, and Dr Makiko Kuramoto, managing director of Tokyo-based Fumi Consulting.

Understanding culture

Kuramoto began by providing a definition of culture: “the entire system of distinctive customs, values, beliefs, knowledge and communication style of a society or a community.” Those distinctive characteristics shape people’s everyday behaviours, practices and ways of thinking, often subconsciously.

As culture is passed down from generation to generation, it is deep-rooted from an early age. Parents, teachers and other leaders encourage and reinforce appropriate behaviour based on the culture to which they belong, while children adapt to culture naturally to thrive in their environment.

“Humans are born with an innate readiness to learn culture in order to adapt to a complex and ever-evolving environment,” she explained, adding that one’s personality “builds on inborn characteristics we inherit from our parents, plus culture and independent experiences.”

Although people share commonalities related to being human, including sleeping, eating, communicating, cooperating and showing love, a lot of other aspects of behaviour are different. Kuramoto pointed out that these aspects are visible, such as clothing, gestures and music, and invisible, such as attitudes, perceptions and ethics.

As culture affects people in everything they do, understanding how and why people behave and think can improve the work environment as well as the work that is carried out. Moreover, intercultural communication increases not only understanding of others and effective interactions, but also awareness of one’s own culture.

Through this development, people can “gain a broader perspective, deepen their understanding of humanity and increase their resilience to challenging situations,” she said. Greater intercultural awareness can also minimise unintended conflicts and misunderstandings while promoting greater feelings of inclusion and belonging in the workplace.


High- and low-context communication

Kuramoto outlined the difference between communication that is high-context (whereby people use contextual cues, non-verbal cues and relationship hierarchy to communicate with each other) and low-context (which relies on verbal information delivered with precision).
In high-context cultures, messages are “implied but not directly expressed,” yet the person is “expected to understand the intention.” In low-context cultures, messages are “delivered clearly and understood at face value.”

When seeing a young child about to cross the street, for example, someone from a low-context culture might say “Stop!” while someone from a high-context culture might say “Dangerous!” The meaning, however, is the same—“Don’t cross!”—she explained.

Each culture can be considered high- or low-context to a different degree. While Japan and Taiwan are among the most high-context cultures, along with South Korea and Indonesia, the United States, Australia and Canada are considered the most low-context cultures, followed by the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.

In both Japan and Taiwan, people use contextual cues to communicate, and place importance on showing respect and saving face, especially when interacting with superiors. Both cultures also try to work in harmony and are generally patient and cooperative with one another.

Even in a business setting, people from high-context cultures carry out their tasks effectively without saying things clearly or in great detail because meaning is understood due to the context. In a low-context culture, meanwhile, both employees and managers rely on specificity and clarification to avoid misunderstandings.

The key to successful communication, especially in an intercultural setting, is for all parties to be aware of their cultural norms while simultaneously showing empathy and making a concerted effort to build better communication together, she said.


Global communication

Mc Closkey spoke on two main areas: how to communicate in a low-context culture to achieve results and how to build trust and foster collaboration through language.

The basic objective of communication in global business is “to achieve results through effective communication,” he said. In Taiwan and Japan, there is a tendency for English communication to focus on accuracy such as using the correct vocabulary or having good pronunciation. But he emphasised that what the message is and how you deliver it is much more important.

In a clear, concise and structured way, messages should convey objectives, results and progress using language that is result-driven, proactive and action-orientated. They should also be as straightforward as possible while avoiding being too direct or critical, he noted. Rather, empathy is vital, and people should remember to demonstrate inclusivity through their words and body language.

“Be collaborative, diplomatic and positive” for effective communication, he said, adding that improving awareness of underlying emotions, even if not explicitly expressed, can help people be better communicators.

Kuramoto outlined three skills that people should hone for success in a diverse business setting. First is critical thinking: the ability to self-reflect, shift perspectives when needed and keep an open mind. She called on participants to be aware of their own habits and biases while keeping the purpose of their efforts front of mind. The second skill is assertive interpersonal communication that “shows empathy and doesn’t hurt the dignity of others.”

Finally, facilitation skills are vital. By being clear on objectives, welcoming diverse ideas and creating an atmosphere where everyone’s psychological safety is ensured, better business outcomes can be achieved for everyone, she said.

Summing up, Mc Closkey focused on the importance of communicating in a structured, concise way using result-oriented language to achieve business goals, while using a communication style that builds rapport, establishes trust and fosters collaboration.