Multiculturalism: Often Discussed, Rarely Understood

Multiculturalism might be the most misunderstood concept in the business world today.

My work involves bringing people together from around the world to form purposeful, temporary communities. To accomplish this, I focus on helping people communicate effectively. Since cultural heritage shapes how we express ourselves, I observe how people communicate within various cultures. The insights help me reduce misunderstanding and expand engagement.

Here’s an example of how communication styles differ across the globe. I’ve seen experienced European negotiators walk away from a meeting with Japanese counterparts believing they were on the cusp of closing their deal; all they needed was a contract to sign. The Japanese team had never said yes; they merely had not said no.  Stating a blunt “no” is seen as impolite in Japan; many Japanese avoid the word so as not to offend. The westerners mistook the absence of no for indication of yes.

Four steps to better multicultural communications:

  • Speak precisely and avoid slang. Say “Be here at 8,” not “Get here early.” Say “I don’t like that,” not “That rubs me the wrong way.”
  • Avoid visual gestures. Thumbs-up means “A-Okay” in the U.S.; it’s a threat in the Middle East and an insult in South America.
  • Watch your body language. Showing your shoe sole is a mortal insult in many countries; standing too close (or too far away) during conversation also may be misunderstood.
  • Offer evidence that’s culturally approved. Offering numerical evidence – studies, reports and rankings – is convincing proof in some cultures; others value testimony from elders, precedent, or clergy’s approval.