How to Become an Effective Intercultural Communicator

In this article, I am going to explain how to apply the concept of deliberate practice to become a more effective intercultural communicator. Anders Ericsson is the researcher who has spent his career studying expert performance and who has since explained the concept of deliberate practice in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

Before getting into the main part of the article, let me explain briefly what deliberate practice is. Deliberate practice implies that when we are learning a skill, we do so so in a focused and systematic way in which we are working towards the achievement of well-defined, specific goals.

Anders Eircsson himself speaks of the 3 F’s of deliberate practice: focus, feedback and fix it.

When we speak of focus, we are talking about hundreds- or thousands of hours of focused effort for the sake of improving one particular skill. When we speak of feedback, we are talking about building constant feedback (both external and internal) into the process of practicing a skill. When we speak of “fixing it”, what we are referring to is to take the feedback that we have received to identify specific areas of weaknesses at any given skill, and then to work deliberately at fixing them.

In other words, a practice is deliberate when we are:

  • deconstructing a skill by breaking it down into all its individual aspects and then improving our performance in each of them
  • formulating well-defined, specific goals that we want to achieve at any aspect of the skill
  • creating a plan which aspects of intercultural communication you need to improve and how
  • taking baby steps to slowly get better at any aspect of the skill in order to achieve long-term performance goals
  • integrating feedback into our learning process constantly (whether it is internal or external feedback)
  • building practice routines that help us to make progress on a daily basis
  • maintaining a constant state of mindful awareness during the process of practicing the new skill

Now, let’s have a look at each of the aspects of deliberate practice individually and see how we can apply them onto learning how to become a better intercultural communicator.

1) Deconstruct the skill of intercultural communication

For learning how to be an effective intercultural communicator, deconstructing the skill is an incredibly difficult task to begin with. For a skill like swimming, for example, it is relatively easy to break it down into its different aspects and subsequently to refine specific goals for how to achieve each step. In the case of intercultural communication, it is both hard to define achievable goals and then to measure when they are being achieved.

And yet, it is certainly possible to deconstruct a complex skill such as intercultural communication. While in this blog post I will not be able to go into detail about what sub-skills are needed for an effective intercultural communicator, here are some quick ideas:

  • learning how to suspend judgment about a different cultural behavior
  • learning to ignore your own stereotypes or assumptions about another culture
  • adapting your body language to mirror the behavior of the local culture
  • learning to recognize patterns of cultural behavior and mimicking them
  • dealing with culture shock
  • for people from a direct culture: learning how to communicate in an indirect way. For people from an indirect culture vise versa

What I can help you with at this point, though, is to give you some tips on where to start with deconstructing the skill of intercultural communication. You can:

  • find expert intercultural communicators and model their behavior by asking them which aspects of the skill they believe to be important and how they have learned them
  • read academic books on intercultural communication. They will give you an overview of the different aspects that make up for the skill itself. As a next step, you will then have to learn how to develop these skills.
  • read blogs like mine or those of other intercultural communication experts like Michael Kimmig who will constantly publish articles articles about individual aspects of the skill of intercultural communication
  • find expats around you who are successful in your new cultural environment and observe what specific behaviors help them create the outcomes they desire
  • stay reflective on your process of learning about intercultural communication and regularly ask yourself what aspects you may be missing that need improvement

2) Formulate well-defined, specific goals on what to achieve

Once you have been able to deconstruct the skill of intercultural communication to some degree and have identified different aspects in which you need to improve, it becomes relatively easy to come up with well-defined, specific goals in which aspect you want to improve. The hard part here is often the measurement. How do you know when you have achieved your goal?

To answer that question, let me tell you a story of how I dealt with adapting to the different way in which people in Indonesia are seeing time compared to people in Germany. Culturally speaking, when it comes to time management, people in Indonesia are the complete opposite of people in Germany.

People in Indonesia have the tendency to use a polychronic time orientation. What this means is that time as such does not play such an important value for them in the sense that “things need to get done as soon as possible”. Rather, Indonesians will do several different things at the same time. They will often come extremely late (up to 3 hours) or cancel the appointment two hours after the appointment time. Because time is not perceived as something to be optimized and to make the most of, to many Indonesians it is totally fine to do something after deadline, to reschedule events or to start an appointment late.

For instance, it is quite common in Indonesia to have private talks at work with several colleagues or to have a long, extended lunch during work hours. With that, the work environment gets a much warmer, more relaxed and family-like atmosphere. Your colleagues basically become your extended family members as you are spending much more time in the office while combining work with leisure.

Germans are the complete opposite. They try to optimize their time. They always want to be punctual and do everything on time. They perceive the idea of being late as an insult to themselves and the person who is late as somebody who doesn’t respect other people’s time. As a result, Germans focus much more on the task and the work environment becomes much colder and more robotic.

When I was living in Indonesia, how did I personally deal with this aspect of the Indonesian culture?

In this particular case, my goal was not to adapt the Indonesian approach to time. Certainly, I have taken my own good points from this approach to time: I have learned to be a bit more relaxed and to live in the moment a bit more rather than to plan everything strictly. But as a whole, my goal here was to find a solution that would work in the environment for both me and the Indonesian people around me, without compromising my German punctuality.

From this point onwards, I simply scheduled much less than what I would usually do. Instead of having four different appointments per day, I scheduled only two: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

I knew that if I was to schedule four appointments per day as usual, I would inevitably be late to my second, third and fourth one, as the previous appointments were likely to start late.

Consequently, what I did was to schedule my appointments always in locations where I was able to do other types of work easily, for instance in a cafe. Then I would go to the cafe right on time as my German punctuality dictated me, and would do my work there until whenever the person, with whom I had an appointment, arrived. In that way I would get a lot of work done, while at the same time making sure that I would never be late to an appointment.

Always remember: adapting to a new cultural environment doesn’t mean that you adapt 100% the behaviors of the local people. After all, that is simply not you.

Your goals for any aspect of intercultural communication should always be formulated in a way that you are achieving your desired outcomes, while at the same time making sure that both you yourself as well as the other people are comfortable with your behavior.

When you have reached the point where you can consistently achieve your desired outcomes while at the same time making both parties comfortable, you have achieved your development goals for this particular aspect of intercultural communication.

3) Take small steps to get better at any particular aspect of intercultural communication

This point is a bit harder to do deliberately than is the case for other skills that need to be learned. For a golfer, for example, he may identify putting from a particular angle as his weakness and then practice this skill over and over again through repetition and so on and so for.

For an intercultural communicator to practice any particular skill, they will either have to wait for a situation to arise in which this skill needs to be applied, or they will have to consciously create mini experiments in which they practice this particular behavior.

In fact, I think that it is exactly this second point of deliberately creating mini experiments which sets apart effective learners in the field of intercultural communication from those who are not.

If you have put into your mind that you would like to learn the indirect way of communicating in Thailand, just like the way that people do it in your host culture, then you will need a lot of practice. As somebody from a direct culture, you brain simply isn’t wired to follow indirect communication practices.

You will already struggle enough at understanding what are people are trying to say to you, let alone actually learning how to do it.

Instead of jumping right into the deep water by trying to use indirect communication for an important issue at work, it would be much better to practice the strategies with little things during daily life first. For instance, if you get invited to a restaurant whose food you do not like, instead of telling your friend straight up what is the problem, you choose to follow a different strategy.

In that case, you may say: “Oh, I have been there a lot lately. How about today we try a different one?”. Then, whenever your friend invites you again, you say the same thing. Eventually he or she will understand through indirect behavior that it is this particular restaurant which is the problem.

Of course, this is a very simple situation of indirect communication and easy to learn. However, by choosing to use indirect communication techniques like these in simple, daily situations, you will also learn the patterns that are underlying indirect communication behavior. In that way, you can learn a specific aspect of becoming an effective intercultural communicator in a safe environment while not risking any critical misunderstandings.

You can then step by step use your newly learned strategies in more important situations and deepen your understanding of this particular skill.

4) Integrate feedback into your learning process constantly

Feedback is an incredibly important aspect of every learning process. When it comes to intercultural communication, however, it is perhaps even more important than in any other field.

The reason why feedback in intercultural communication is so important is because measuring your progress is so difficult in learning to be an effective intercultural communicator. For people who are learning how to shoot a free kicks from a particularly position successfully, they can easily measure how many times out of 10 they score a goal. Intercultural communicators do not have the possibility to create easy-to-track measurements like these, and thus are highly dependent on feedback from mentors.

Feedback in intercultural communication means that you will have to find a variety of different “culture mentors”. They will be people who have experience in different aspects of the intercultural communication process and who can give you advice in which aspects of the skill you will need improvement and what you can do to improve.

While you while have to find your own group of culture mentors, let me give you an idea of what kind of people you should be looking for:

  • people who already have years of experience in your host culture and who have proven to lead to their desired outcomes in the new cultural environment consistently. They will be able to show you in which areas you will need to make improvement and how.
  • people who are from the host culture and have lived overseas for several years. They will be able to give you insights into the types of behaviors you are consistently repeating that are creating problems for you in the host culture.
  • people who are intercultural communication experts and who can advice you on building effective learning strategies for becoming a more effective intercultural communicator.
  • people who are from the host culture and who have never lived overseas. They will be able to explain to you how your behaviors are being perceived from a purely local perspective.

5) Build regular practice routines

For most people, becoming a more effective intercultural communicator isn’t exactly their first priority. If you are like most people, you probably came to host country because you have taken on a job there. Intercultural communication is just a means to an end for the sake of achieving your goals in the new environment.

Becoming better at any skill requires us to build regular and consistent practice routines. Unfortunately, the fact that becoming an effective intercultural communicator isn’t exactly most expats’ first priority, leads to the problem that they forget to build regular and consistent practice routines like these into their daily habits. Because of that, let’s now have a look at five simple steps how you can integrate little practice routines into your ordinary day-to-day life.

First, observe a type of behavior from local people that you do not understand fully. For that, you will have to look for patterns and then see which behaviors are done consistently that puzzle you.

Secondly, do some research by simply asking people around you what this behavior really means. Try to find out which values and assumptions are underlying this behavior.

Third, test using this behavior in different situations by trying to mimic it. Find different situations in which you can use these new behavioral patterns that have little risk to you to lead to problematic outcomes.

Fourth, get feedback from different sources, both internally and externally. See how people respond to your actions and if they will lead to the desired results. Ask people how they perceived your behavior and what you can do better.

Fifth, adjust your behavior according to the feedback you received. You will learn how you will have to adjust your behavior in a way that leads to better results and makes both you and the local people more comfortable.

If you find ways of going through this practice cycle on a regular basis, it will not necessarily be very time intensive. All of the steps in this practice cycle are things that you will be able to do splintered throughout your ordinary work day easily. One of the most important things to keep in mind here is that you should always try to understand a behavior as much as possible before actually trying to implement it. If you do not understand the reasons underlying a specific behavioral pattern, then you will inevitably use it in the wrong circumstances and your learning will be limited. To avoid this, always do your research.

6) Always be mindful and aware during the learning process

Reflection is one of the most important aspects of any learning process. In the case of learning to become an effective intercultural communicator, this means to constantly remain aware of your own weaknesses, the assumptions you are making about the host culture, the stereotypes you are holding about the host culture, and most importantly, the assumptions that you are making about the world.

There are questions that need to be asking yourself all the time during- and after intercultural encounters:

  • what assumptions am I making here that may or may not be true?
  • what stereotypes might be holding me back in this situation?
  • what weaknesses do I have as an intercultural communicator that might be affecting this situation?
  • how is my behavior going to be perceived by the local people?
  • in what ways do I perceive the way that the local people are behaving which may be affected by my own cultural assumptions?
  • in this situation, have I maximized my learning opportunities?
  • in this situation, have I observed the behavior of the others carefully and with enough reflection?

The key here is to always be 100% aware and focused during the intercultural encounter. Observe the situation carefully and do not let yourself be guided by intuition too much. Intuition works well in situations where we have a high degree of experience, but not in situations where we are confronted with a relatively new culture.

Instead, make sure that your mind is always active by observing the behavior of the other party as well as the reactions of the other party to your own behavior. Ask yourself questions like the one’s mentioned above on a regular basis to make sure not to let yourself be guided by intuition too much. Always remain mindful of your own thoughts and feelings in order to notice ahead of time when problems may arise.

In a world of constant distraction, remaining 100% focused and aware during any intercultural encounter is one of the key strengths that we can cultivate. Combining this with a habit of constant reflection by asking yourself the right questions and thinking them through carefully will develop your skill very quickly.

So, what are the next steps?

Now, the time has come for you to implement the steps that I have outlined in this article one by one. Keep in mind that this is a long-term process. In fact, you can spend your whole life working on these steps and still make progress constantly.

Start by identifying some aspects of the skill of intercultural communication that you think will help you the most in terms of making your life in your host culture easier. Then, for these aspects that you have chosen, go through the whole learning cycle of formulating goals, taking small learning steps, integrating feedback into your learning process and building practice routines into your daily life.

Also, there is a favor I have to ask of you. I am considering to write a book on how to become an effective intercultural communicator on the basis of this article. In that book I am going to go into more detail of what deliberate practice is and how to apply it on the skill of intercultural communication. Then, I am going to deconstruct the skill of intercultural communication completely in all its aspects and give advice on how to develop your skills in each aspect individually.

What I would like to ask from you is this: if you found this article helpful, please send me an e-mail to rettigtim@gmail.com and give me some feedback about whether or a book with a more complete step-by-step guide would be helpful to you. Then, also feel free to write requests about what you would like to be included in that book. Feedback like this would be very helpful to me.

All the best,

Tim

Tim

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