In 2005 on Inauguration Day, President George W. Bush raised his fist with the index and little finger extended to bring on the cheers. This was the time-honored “Hook ’em Horns” hand signal and slogan of The University of Texas at Austin. Newspapers around the world were aghast at this gesture.
In Italy, it was referred to as “il cornuto,” which means your wife is unfaithful. It is an offensive gesture in many other parts of the world and considered a curse in some African countries. Clearly, he was not thinking of the repercussions this gesture would have in other cultures, but it does show just how powerful non-verbal communication can be.
People often mistakenly think that becoming fluent in the language of their new home country is all that is needed for intercultural communication. Verbal communication is more than language, and includes tone and volume, speed and rhythm, vocal inflections, use of descriptive words, and the use of silence. However, social interaction is far more often about cultural subtleties than it is about words and dialect.
In the seventies, a book came out called Body Language by Julius Fast. At the time, this was a relatively new concept stating that your body doesn’t know how to lie. Unconsciously, you telegraph your thoughts through your body’s movements and gestures. If you were adept enough and with hints from the book, you could become an expert at reading a person’s body language, and therefore their thoughts.
About this same time, some form of diversity training was offered in the business world. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cultural training classes were starting to be taught to those moving for a corporation to another country. Terms such as verbal and non-verbal, high and low context, direct and indirect communication were being used to help people understand the nuances of a culture different from their own.
Fast-forward to today when technologies like social media, e-mail, and video conferencing lead some people to forget that the skills and awareness learned through cross-cultural training are still necessary. On the contrary, the best communicators know that technology is not a replacement for cultural education.
In today’s interconnected world, developing competency in cross-cultural skills can be extremely beneficial. Those working with global teams can utilize cultural awareness to bring out the best in each team member. Global sales travelers trying to enter a new market benefit by learning the nuances of the culture before walking into a meeting. Cultural awareness also fosters development of key leaders, innovation, and integration of two companies as a result of a merger.
By working towards intercultural competence, assignees and their families are less likely to repatriate before the assignment is over, have greater satisfaction in their host location, and can deal better with the stress of living in a new culture. Global business travelers will have the knowledge to conduct themselves respectfully during business interactions.
Cultural awareness can prevent misunderstanding in communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Good communication is a sign of respect and understanding of cultural differences. Mutual understanding leads to more successful outcomes and builds better relationships. So, for those thinking that cultural training is a soft skill and not important, think again.
Written by Cathy Heyne, GMS-T, Managing Director
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