Some say that so-called “soft skills” are the economic powerhouses of the 21st-century. That more than specific technologies, we need to help our children develop a high emotional intelligence, diplomacy and cross-cultural communication skills.
Little touches on my life more than cross-cultural communication skills. Traveling abroad or even more, living abroad, inherently requires some level of cross-cultural communication.
Defined as the communication between people with a different age, nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on, cross cultural is essentially how people from different cultures communicate with each other.
Having strong cross-cultural communication skills does not mean being bilingual. Cross-cultural communication is so much more than simply knowing the translation from your language to another and back.
What surprises me, is just how many English-speaking immigrants to Italy I know who have been here for years and still barely understand the Italians around them. I’m shocked seeing miscommunications both literal, with the actual translations, and more ephemerally with the basic cultural comprehension of another person from expats who should know better. I wonder, why even come to live in another country if you’re not interested in the other culture?
Cross-cultural communication is knowing that culture as completely as possible. Knowing the references, the slang, the metaphors needed to get your point across adequately. It’s about knowing the background of those people, where they’re coming from when they say what they say, do what they do. Of course no one expects this to come overnight, but with time, interest and effort anyone can gain a certain level of cultural background.
Cross-cultural communication is telling your story with miles already exchanged into kilometers and Fahrenheit into Celsius. It’s using local expressions rather than literally translating English ones into Italian. It’s doing whatever it takes to put your interlocutor 100% at ease, like pronouncing English words used in Italy with an Italian accent so they’ll be easily understood. They are not wrong when they say “am-bur-GEIR” when speaking in Italian, even though hamburger is an English word. It’s only “wrong” if they pronounce it like that when speaking in English. Go with it.
You have to mold a part of yourself into that of another culture, willingly. You can’t avoid assimilation at all costs and still claim cross-cultural communication skills. You have to have knowledge of the world, of geography and history and, obviously, culture.
And this isn’t just from one language to another. Cross-cultural communication skills include non-verbal cues as well. Those seen in personal space, time conceptions, body language and gestures.
And it can be monolingual, too.
Studies say that English speakers are the world’s worst communicators. Why? Because naturally growing up with the world’s lingua franca isn’t enough – you have to know how to use it with others in a way that they’ll understand.
After all, communication is hardly communication if your interlocutor doesn’t understand.
So, how do you get good at cross-cultural communication? You communicate across cultures. This could be American-Italian, rich-poor, north-south, black-white. You leave your homogeneous community and explore different backgrounds, different spaces, different minds.
You learn about other people’s experiences and what it means when they say what they say.
You travel the world.
You read facial cues, observe gestures, sense emotions in others.
You listen openly, lovingly, with acceptance.
Because cross-cultural communication is more than just a skill on a resume, it’s the true comprehension of those around us and our real-life diplomacy.
As with all skills, some may be better at this than others, but all of us would benefit with more cross-cultural understanding.