Communicating across cultures can be exciting—each interaction is a new adventure. But adventures can also be a bit frightening and unsettling because you don’t know what’s coming next. Your expectations of what is normal paired with others’ preexisting ideas about Americans can lead to miscommunication and some difficult interactions. However, there are a number of things you can do to navigate through those moments more smoothly.
Communication Gone Wrong, 3 Examples
An American woman is seated at a table at café in Latin America, waiting for friend. She keeps looking at the clock on the wall. A thought bubble appears above her head with text reading "She was supposed to be here an hour ago! Unbelievable!" Her friend finally shows up and says "Hey! You ordered for me. Thanks!" The American has an annoyed expression on her face, while her friend shows surprise at the annoyance.
A Chinese businessman is in a formal meeting with an American businessman. The Chinese businessman says, "Sir, thank you for visiting. Please take my card" and offers his business card with two hands (a sign of respect). The American businessman casually takes it with one hand and puts it in his pocket, and does not offer a card in return. The American then says, "Well, see ya later!" The Chinese businessman appears very angry and offended. As the American turns around and walks away, a thought bubble appears above the Chinese businessman reading "He just took my card with one hand! No respect!"
An American college student and Middle Eastern man are talking in a bar while another man plays pool nearby. The Middle Eastern man tells his friend "I must say, I'm very happy we've become friends." He then places his hand on his American friend's shoulder and says "Please, will you join my family for dinner tonight?" The American man then looks very uncomfortable.
What's normal in some cultures, isn't in others.
Here are a handful of tips about attitudes you can foster as you begin to communicate with people from other cultures and respond to their questions about the United States.
Try to see the world from the perspective of other people by more deeply understanding their worldview, beliefs, values, and experiences.
As you learn about the lives of people in other cultures, you increase your empathy and connection with others who may lead very different lives and hold different beliefs.
Embracing this way of thinking can make fielding difficult questions with tact and empathy much easier.
There are things you can do before, during, and after each interaction. These steps can help you have more successful encounters when communicating across cultures and can build your confidence for answering difficult questions.
As you continue to foster these attitudes, they will become easier to put into practice.
As you go through these steps and interact with people from different cultures, you should constantly reflect on your effectiveness and what really matters to you. Check in on what you hoped to accomplish, how you feel about your own behavior and the reactions and responses of the people you were communicating with, and the overall outcome of your interactions.
Throughout your journey you may find yourself adjusting your beliefs and bending your behaviors to match the culture you’re immersed in. Luckily, you’ll be relying on communication techniques you’ve been practicing your whole life to accomplish this.