Body language, verbal communication and cultural formalities vary around the world. The same word or gesture that is innocuous for some may be considered offensive by others and can negatively affect a workplace by potentially damaging relationships. Misunderstandings can occur, as workplace associates from different cultures make differing assumptions about what is meant by the eye contact, body language and unfamiliar phrases.
Inaccurate Assumptions in Meaning
Among different cultures, combinations of verbal communication and body language can have different meanings, and this can lead to misunderstandings. For example, if you ask a co-worker if he understood the report you gave him and he smiles, you may interpret his reaction as an affirmative. However, in some cultures, this is a nonverbal signal that the listener does not understand, and that he needs it explained to him.
Formality Differences in Communications
The Western cultures of America, New Zealand and Australia are informal when addressing a business associate and will usually use her first name. More formal cultures such as those found in parts of Europe use titles such as "Mr.," "Mrs." or "Dr.," along with with a family name. It is considered disrespectful to use a first name without permission. In speaking with an associate of a different culture, to avoid offending her, it is best to assume a high level of formality unless you are asked to use her first name.
Misinterpretations of Body Language
In North America, eye contact in the workplace is an approved method of engaging interaction and shows confidence and authority. A person who does not make or return eye contact may be considered suspicious or insecure when, in fact, in his culture, as in Japan, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, he is showing respect. Similarly, in North America, a handshake, regardless of gender, is a common workplace gesture, if the person is known on a more intimate basis. In the Islamic culture, by contrast, touching -- including handshakes between men and women -- disapproved of.
Unfamiliar Phrases in Communications
Culture-specific phrases in an intercultural workplace can be easily misunderstood. For example, in North America, baseball phrases such as "ballpark estimates," "touch base," and "out in left field," are commonly used business expressions that would be unfamiliar to members of a culture where baseball is not common. Similarly, acronyms or abbreviated terms in the workplace are difficult to understand for an associate who is not familiar with the work environment.