Cross Cultural Communication
Australia is a culturally diverse nation. Its diversity is growing every year through migration programs, including programs for skilled migrants, refugees, international students and businesses. To achieve positive health outcomes for people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important for workers in the health and community services sectors to develop the cross-cultural communication skills needed to provide equitable and accessible services for this diverse community.
Cross-cultural communication is required to form and maintain relationships with people that have a culture that is different from our own. It is based on the ability to develop a shared understanding and accurate interpretation of what is said, written, observed and done by and between us as the service provider and the client.
Communicating effectively with people who come from different cultures may be challenging. It requires us to better understand our own culture and the power and privileges that may come with it.
We are the product of our experiences, and our experiences create our culture. Our culture provides us with a framework for seeing, hearing, thinking about and interpreting the world around us. We therefore communicate with and understand other people using our own cultural rules for language and behaviour. These rules include; how close people stand to each other when they are talking, whether someone makes direct eye contact or not and whether someone communicates or talks indirectly around an issue.
It is not surprising that misunderstandings and, at times, conflicts can arise when words and behaviours can mean different things to people. Such communication problems can dramatically increase when an interpreter is needed to overcome language barriers.
The table below highlights differences in communication between people who come from ‘low-context’ cultures (based on individualistic values) and those who come from ‘high-context’ cultures (based on collectivist values).
- “say what you mean and mean what you say” – speak directly
- direct, first-person communication is preferred
- words are usually enough to communicate what you mean
- truthfulness is expected, regardless of consequences
- “you can’t understand what’s being said until you learn how things are done around here”
- indirect communication (using intermediaries) is preferred
- words alone are not enough to grasp meaning
- truth is flexible and secondary to honour and other factors.
It is important that, when working with culturally and linguistically diverse clients or communities, service providers recognise it is their own culture that provides the frame of reference in which information provided to a client is understood. Knowing and applying appropriate etiquette and manners is essential for health professionals and community service providers. In the health sector, cultural sensitivity or appropriateness can make a life-or-death difference.
Effective cross-cultural strategies need curiosity and creativity. If we engage with difference, explore contexts and incorporate different points of view we will better understand our own culture and the cultures of our clients – and consequently deliver better services.
Managing cultural diversity requires the ability to see situations from a different perspective. By focusing only on our own point of view we are likely to make assumptions that may not be correct. While assumptions can be useful in helping make sense of new information and situations, it is important that we treat everyone as an individual; unchecked assumptions can lead to stereotyping and prejudice.
Improving cross cultural communication skills requires the constant assessment of:
- our level of interest and energy to learn or adjust our practice
- our sense of confidence
- our degree of openness
- our sense of reward when working cross culturally
- the extent to which we understand the role of culture in how people think and behave, and similarities and differences in cultures
- the extent to which we are aware of what’s going on in a cross-cultural situation, and the ability to use that in managing a situation
- the extent to which we respond appropriately (e.g. flexibility in verbal and non-verbal behaviours).
Useful links to better understand cross cultural communications and contexts:
Community Door: Strategies for Effective Communications
Beyond Intractability: Cross Cultural Communication
University of the Pacific: Context of Cultures – High and Low
Wikipedia: Emotions and Culture