In the incredibly connected modern world, communicating with people in other countries is common. Whether for work or because of a shared interest, people are able to connect on a plethora of platforms regardless of the physical distance. Despite the ease of immediate communication, actually reaching understanding with international acquaintances presents its own challenges. The following tips and tricks will help you to communicate more clearly and effectively with people in other countries.
Tip #1: Remember the Time Difference
If you’re lucky, the person you’re choosing to communicate with across international borders is in the same time zone as you are. That is, if it’s 10 a.m. for you, it’s 10 a.m. for them. However, the wider your international circle becomes, the less likely that scenario is! If people live in other time zones, it’s crucial to remember the time difference for a few reasons.
First, remembering the time difference is important for real-time interactions. Is now actually a good time to call that person, or will they be asleep or out of touch? Waking someone up, or interrupting a time when they already have plans, is a sure path to frustration.
Second, remembering the time difference is important for expectations of when things can be communicated or done. If you want this person to respond on the same day, are they actually able to do that, or are you aiming for a time window they’ve already passed? If it’s noon for you but evening for them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll get back to you about a work project same-day!
Third, remembering the time difference is important for making plans. Not only do you need to consider the typical time difference, you also need to take Daylight Saving Time into account. Not all countries and not all areas of countries use Daylight Saving Time, so pre-planned arrangements can still go awry if you don’t confirm the time you’re actually both experiencing.
Tip #2: Take Widespread Cultural Events into Account
It’s easy to assume one’s home culture is the norm, especially since one is immersed in it all the time! Things like holidays, typical hours, and basic manners seem not even worth mentioning. However, once you broaden your interactions to be international, “typical” can be anything but!
First, different cultures have different “typical” hours. Europeans tend to eat later in the day than Americans, often dining around 8 p.m. and socializing into the late night hours. In contrast, Americans eat dinner around 6 p.m.; socializing often ends by 10 p.m. These are just two examples on two different continents—things this seemingly basic vary widely not only region to region, but country to country.
Second, pay attention to different standard holidays celebrated in different places. In China the holidays fall according to the lunar calendar, and thus vary from year to year by the Western calendar. A Canadian expecting to talk to someone in China the first week of October, when nothing significant is happening in Canada, would mean a real problem. Most Chinese people try to go home for the October holiday for three days to a week around that time, and focus on family and nearby friends!
Third, check your expectations about what your relationship with this person means. People in different cultures assume different levels of closeness based on what they share with another person about their life and experiences. What might be a deep, confiding exchange for a Russian might appear to be only casual small talk to an American! Moreover, different topics are acceptable and taboo in different countries. In Belgium, asking someone’s salary directly would have you immediately labeled rude and invasive in their privacy, where it is a typical icebreaker question in China.
Once you have an international connection, it will benefit you a lot to do some basic cultural research to find out what’s standard!
Tip #3: Don’t Use Abbreviations
Abbreviations are meant to save time and are frequently and casually used by Americans in spoken and written communication alike. However, for non-native English speakers abbreviations may be different or may not be used, leading to confusion and miscommunication. Moreover, even between countries where English is the first language the same abbreviation may stand for different things in the cultural context! Unless you’ve explicitly established what an abbreviation means with each person, avoid using abbreviations in written and spoken exchanges.
Tip #4: Use a Different Date Format
Time passes at the same speed for all of us, but despite that simple fact, how people record time varies from place to place. Instead of using American (MM-DD-YYYY) or European (DD-MM-YYYY) styles for writing dates, use the format YYYY-MM-DD (2017-06-22) or day month date (Monday, May 22) to ensure everyone is on the same page. This is also helpful because most computers will sort the YYYY-MM-DD in an easily-searchable chronological way. Be sure to double-check dates anytime someone uses the MM-DD or DD-MM format, as this can be easily misunderstood internationally.
Tip #5: Be Concise and Organized
Treating one another as intelligent, capable human beings is an absolute must for relationships. No one likes being talked down to! However, using unclear, long, rambling, or pointless sentences, or haphazardly saying whatever comes to mind with no system of organization and no central point will only lead to frustration. Use short sentences and bullet-point lists; for those whose first language isn’t English, having things broken into discrete parts will aid comprehension. For emails or text chats that must be replied to in writing, putting items in a numbered list will allow both you and the person replying to you to see whether all items have been addressed. Organization will make it easier to reference what you talked about in the past—and it will be easier to remember, too!
Tip #6: Don’t Take Things for Granted: It’s Better to Ask!
If you haven’t been able to find a conclusive answer through research, or if you run across something odd or unexpected in your international communication, don’t hesitate! Ask for clarification. It’s always better to understand something in the moment over letting it snowball out of control, and it may help you recognize where you both need to work harder in meeting each other in the middle. International connections can be fascinating, fun, fruitful, and fantastic, and the better your communication, the more you will enjoy the experience!