Our personal communication style is a byproduct of our cultural background and our life experiences. We know, for example, that the Dutch are more direct communicators than Koreans. However, when you look at any individual, their personal communication style may also be influenced by their educational level, their exposure to cultures other than their own as well as their ability to change modalities to get the result that they want.
Effective communication is a building block of successful global mobility; learning to change modalities is crucial when communicating across cultures. Understanding their own communication style and the communication style of people in the country of assignment allows expats to adapt their speaking style so that they can get their message across easily. More than one expat assignment has been derailed by an inability to communicate in a culturally sensitive manner.
Knowing how their natural communication style could lead to challenges allows the savvy expatriate to modify their style to conform to the local standard.
Scenario 1: If a direct communicator is sent to a culture that has a more indirect style, the expat's words may be misunderstood.
At your first meeting with your project team, you begin to delegate work among the team, with limited background explanation. When distributing a task that is needed quickly, you say rather forcefully, "Do this now." The team looks confused.
Although you are from a culture where polite phrases such as "please", "thank you", and "excuse me" are not part of everyday speech, they are the bare minimum of civilized conversation in an this location. The simple statement you thought was a request has been interpreted as an order from an angry boss.
How could this have been averted?
Simple changes in phraseology can entirely change the situation. Saying, "Please do this as soon as possible" would have softened the message. Over time, the savvy expat would learn to begin meetings with some polite conversation and turn the request into a suggestion, such as, "It would be great if you could please find the time to do this."
The expat who does not learn to communicate in the style used in the assignment location may soon find their competence questioned. When local employees see an expat as overly blunt and intimidating, they will go out of their way to avoid interactions. Over time, this leads to the expat not being the recipient of valuable information.
By not tempering his/her communication style, the expatriate's future global mobility may be limited to those countries with a more similar cultural blueprint.
Scenario 2: If you are an indirect communicator and move to a culture with a more direct style, the subtlety of your messages may not be understood.
You are sitting at a meeting where it is important that a decision be reached. Instead of getting to the point, you spend 15 minutes talking about things that have nothing to do with the project. When you begin to explain your recommendations, it sounds like adjective soup – there are so many qualifiers that it is nearly impossible to identify what is being recommended and why.
The result? The team leader asks someone else from the team to present the recommendation.
How could this have been handled differently?
You could have focused on the bare details and waited for the team leader to ask questions if more detail was required. You could also have reviewed your recommendation and removed two out of every three adjectives, since this would focus your message.
When someone cannot be heard at meetings because their communication style is too vague for to-the-point communicators, they will eventually be seen as more of a behind-the-scenes person who cannot handle front-line work. This will ultimately lead to a loss of global mobility.