Skip to main content

How can businesses overcome challenges in virtual cross-cultural communication?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pexels)

Communicating across cultures and countries can be a challenge at the best of times. Which is why businesses generally choose to facilitate interactions in face- to-face environments to achieve optimum outcomes.

However, with so much uncertainty around global travel in 2020 due to regional travel restrictions and lookdowns caused by Covid second spikes, business communications will now primarily take place virtually or on the phone for the foreseeable future.

And whilst it’s great that we have channels to enable meetings during this difficult time, the virtual setting can bring a whole new set of issues to navigate on top of the existing ones. With everything from language barriers, to connectivity issues to lateness it’s a tricky world to navigate, so here I look at what you can do to prevent any pitfalls.

“Can you hear me?”

The first point is an issue that affects every country, culture and company around the world. Technological problems.

Many of us have heard the following over the past couple of months: “Can you hear me ok?”, “Sorry can you repeat that, you cut out.” and “We can’t hear you, you’re on mute.” and whilst it can be humorous at times, when you throw in different languages it can become very frustrating to have issues with sound when everyone is trying to listen.

Other issues include not being able to log in, to limited minutes to buffering, all which can prove to be very disruptive to the flow and productivity of a meeting.

To prevent these, make sure you send everyone clear instructions to access the calls, have an unlimited minutes account and ask people to turn their video off if connections are poor.

For those who speak another language make sure instructions are crystal clear and sent well in advance of the meeting so there is time to resolve if there are issues. You could even translate the meeting invite to make it easier for them.

Language barriers

As international travel is going to be restricted for some time, most interactions with customers, colleagues and suppliers will have to be virtual.

Language can be a huge obstacle for business communications and difficulties with technology and sound can amplify the issue.

For many not being able to communicate in the same language can lead to a lack of confidence and make communications come to an abrupt stop. As a company we identified that being able to converse in multiple languages is a huge advantage and can speed up meetings as well ensure both sides understand each other.

Many rely on Google Translate or other text translators but these just don’t support the natural flow of a conversation. The other option is drafting in a colleague who can translate but this can take up precious time and you’re often limited as to what languages can be spoken.

A clever way to get around this is using technological support such as an audio language translator. This means participants can speak directly into the translator and it repeats the phrase in your chosen language, making it ideal for video and conference calls. 

When selecting an audio translator choose one that offers a high-quality noise cancelling microphone and powerful speakers as it helps minimize any sound or technical issues. It’s also crucial that it can do multiple languages, ours can do 75 which may sound like a lot but anything that makes that conversation easier is an advantage.

In an ideal world both parties would have an audio translator to speed up the conversation however it still works well if just one person has one.

Culture shock

Cultural differences can also play a key role in how we communicate, so it’s important to get ahead of this and anticipate it rather than have to try to deal with it after the fact. It’s worth doing some research on the cultures involved in the call and to integrate those variations into the meeting format.

For example some cultures are known for punctuality so you need to ensure you’re ready to go on time, others may take a more relaxed approach to timekeeping and it wouldn’t be uncommon for them to arrive ten minutes after the call has started.

It’s likely that the world is going to offer a new normal for the next year or so. And whilst it can be challenging it’s crucial we all work together to find the best way to maintain output and relationships using the tools available to us.

Engineer a flow

It’s no doubt that face to face communication always flows easier than that on the phone or video and it can often be tricky to replicate this. You can’t use body language or talk about relevant topics such as your surroundings such as how busy the traffic was or how you’re enjoying the city etc. However, there are ways you can improve the virtual interaction.

Treat the video call like you would a normal conversation, ask people how they are, what they’ve been up to etc. These interactions help create and maintain relationships and relax everyone into the call before ‘business talk’ starts.

You could even start off with a quiz or activity for certain calls to warm everyone up if appropriate.

Normal meeting rules still stand

Just as it would be if the meeting was in person it needs someone to organize and lead the call and ensure there is an agenda circulated and minutes taken etc. To make life easier for everyone you could translate the written documents to aid quicker understanding from the other participants.

However, the moderator should be aware of the additional challenges video calls bring:

  • Ask everyone to mute when not speaking. With people speaking in different languages this is very important as people will have to listen extra carefully.
  • Keep an eye on the participants and note when someone wants to say something.
  • Note the body language. The great thing about video is it can still give you some cues as to what people are thinking and feeling without them saying it.

So whilst we face challenges ahead during this time it’s important to embrace the technology solutions available to us as we look to engage with many cultures and companies across the world. Don’t forget that language and cultural differences may seem daunting but that there are solutions available to make things more seamless, resulting in better communication and, ultimately, business for everyone.

Tomoaki Kojima, CEO, Sourcenext B.V, Pocketalk

Tomoaki Kojima joined Sourcenext Corporation in 2001. Currently he is the executive managing director of POCKETALK, and is responsible for Sourcenext sales activities in Europe and Asia.