Cross-Cultural Listening and Learning

One of the benefits of living cross-culturally is that we learn how to communicate better, but we have also learned how hard it can be to communicate when coming from very different backgrounds. We have had to develop several skills in order to have the authentic communication that is required for any relationship to survive and/or thrive. Even within our home culture, there exists a wide variety of subcultures, and these lessons can be applied there too.

Enter: Lessons from Cross-Cultural Listening and Learning (to the rescue!)

Check cultural biases/assumptions/motivations. What is seen and said is only part of what is going on. There’s a whole lot underpinning what is visible. The iceberg concept of culture (see image) can help explain this idea.

The further under the surface an idea is, the stronger the emotional connection to that idea.

Reserve judgment. It’s not “weird” or “crazy”–it’s different. If I can start there, I will have a much more receptive heart to truly understand. I may still never agree on something (especially a core value), but learning about someone else is better achieved if I start off curious and open.

Observe and clarify. Ask a person from the culture in focus for clarification. Ask another person from that culture for clarification. Ask another person from that culture for clarification. Ask…and so on. For example, in observing elements of Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian lunar new year), we wound up getting different answers from different people. Imagine how easily we could have distorted the reality of the holiday if we had only checked with one Mongolian. Imagine how easily we could have distorted the reality of the holiday if we had only asked other expats. If we want to learn about a culture, it’s best to ask people who are from that culture and not rely on an outsider’s possibly skewed interpretation.

Active listening. Listen with the intent to come up with our next point isn’t truly listening. We listen to show respect for the other person and to learn. We can always learn from someone else. It might be a negative lesson (what not to do instead of what one ought to do), but it’s a lesson regardless. Recently, we learned about reflective listening as part of active listening. This means parroting back what we thought we heard the other person say and ask if we heard correctly. This really does help clear up miscommunication!

happy diverse baristas chatting happily during break at work
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

If I hurt someone, regardless of whether or not I intended to, I should apologize and seek to make amends. This is just good advice in general regardless of whether we’re operating within or without of our home culture. The impact of our actions or words can hurt someone even if we didn’t intend to hurt them. Imagine after inviting someone over to dinner, as they pull out of your driveway, they run over the family pet and it dies. It was an accident, and they didn’t mean to kill your pet, but the impact on your family is large. Wouldn’t you want an apology? I know I would!

Look for common ground. Go from there. No further explanation needed, but I’m going to break it down anyway. Regardless of the diversity of backgrounds, I assure you that we can find at least one thing in common. It might be a musical group, a book, an activity, a love for family, whatever! It’s worth it to find that commonality.

We’re still learning to communicate better, but we hope this helps! What are your ideas to improve cross-cultural communication?

Beth sig

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