Communication Without ‘Stumbling’ Over Culture
Knowing a foreign language even at the highest level does not always guarantee effective and ‘seamless’ communication. Sometimes, when coming to live, work, or study in another country, people already know the basic words and phrases that may be useful to them in communication with foreigners but ‘stumble’ over culture. In her interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the expert in cross-cultural communication Marina Dzhashi talked about how to overcome such invisible barriers and develop cross-cultural intelligence.
practicing expert in cross-cultural communication in business, business coach, teacher, and journalist
Marina Dzhashi has not only international education but also personal experience of working in Japan, studying in England, and living in the USA and India. The expert has visited more than 30 countries during her business and tourist trips. Today, Marina Dzhashi willingly shares her knowledge and experience with those wishing to establish international businesses or planning to study or live abroad.
The expert conducts trainings and corporate workshops, speaks at professional conferences, and cooperates with major companies and individuals. Marina Dzhashi’s social project, the International Business Ethics programme, occupies an important place in her activities. The initiative represents a series of conversations on the topic of intercultural communication with the leading experts from the fields of culture, business, education, and other spheres.
– Marina, today, people widely discuss intercultural communication. What does that profound and multifaceted concept mean? What do you find most interesting in your work?
– Indeed, that concept is already familiar to many people. It is actually quite broad and multifaceted. Intercultural communication means establishing relationships not only among people from different countries but also among representatives of different generations or professions. They may speak the same language but have different views on certain things.
At the same time, this concept also includes cross-cultural communication. It is about communication that takes into account national cultural peculiarities. That notion reflects the sphere of my professional interests in the best way possible. It is about establishing a business dialogue with different cultures, developing international business projects, organising work in multinational team in the most efficient way, and many other nuances. The depth of immersion is the most interesting aspect of my work.
When people go to a new country, they often worry about their foreign language skills. However, few people admit that they can ‘stumble’ over culture even in case of knowing a huge number of foreign words and expressions.
Mastering foreign languages has become a real trend today. People are taking a huge interest not only in European languages but also in Eastern ones, which have been in the shadows for a long time. I find that great. In my opinion, the more foreign languages a person knows, the more prospects open up before him or her. Knowing languages can be compared to a key to a new door. However, it is important to understand that even the highest level of language proficiency cannot guarantee absolutely problem-free or ‘seamless’ communication.
I would say that learning the language at the level of words and expressions is the very first level. It makes it possible for you to establish contact with representatives of another culture. Of course, locals are pleased when we can say hello or thank them in their native language when we come to their country. At the same time, if we are interested in deeper communication, we need to immerse ourselves deeper. Then we will understand that we could only see the small tip of the iceberg before that. The huge part of it that we used not to see is the very culture that needs to be studied in order to establish an effective dialogue.
Here we should take into account not only familiarity with the traditions and customs of this or that country. It is extremely important to understand the behavioural and psychological processes caused by culture and to develop cross-cultural intelligence.
– What is cross-cultural intelligence? How can one develop it?
– There are three key psychological characteristics that affect a person’s ability to handle intricate situations. These are IQ (intelligence quotient) directly related to mental ability, EQ (emotional intelligence), which is about the ability to understand, control, and express emotions, and CQ (cross-cultural intelligence), which is based on the ability to interact and work across cultures effectively.
Cross-cultural intelligence presupposes a person’s ability to perceive differences as an object for exploration and an opportunity to cognise the world more fully.
To develop CQ, one needs to observe people from the culture into which he or she want to integrate, analyze their behaviour, and draw conclusions. The main thing is to remember that some people may have a different vision of the world and many other things. What is not important to us may be of great importance to someone from another culture.
A friend of mine who works as a mentor once told me a story about a young woman from Russia with extensive experience, good international education, and a number of serious professional accomplishments. At her age, she was already running a company and planning to establish partnership with China. However, for some reason, the dialogue did not work out. The woman felt that the Chinese partners treated her coldly.
Of course, in order to make an accurate ‘diagnosis’, we need to know the whole context. However, if considering the situation superficially, it is likely that her ignorance of cultural specifics was the reason for that failure. In the East, it is customary to show one’s authority through deeds, not words. The Chinese might have been wary of the young manager. Striving to impress new partners and prove her competence, the woman talked too much about herself and her experience. She thought that this would create a more trusting atmosphere. In fact, the result was the opposite: that alienated the interlocutors.
– Have similar situations ever happened to you? You have a very long experience of working in different countries. What was the most difficult thing for you when integrating into new cultures for the first time?
– Yes, I had a similar situation in Japan. I knew that, in Japan, companies have very strict rules. Firstly, I prepared properly before arriving there. Secondly, I tried to learn a lot from my colleagues and to observe them. As a result, I developed a good relationship with the team. I was happy and mistakenly believed that I was ready for anything.
At some moment, the attitude of my colleagues towards me changed drastically. I was no longer invited to lunch or coffee. They talked to me politely but coldly. I did not understand at all what was going on. When I asked other employees about I was wrong about, they just answered that everything was fine. After delving into the subject, talking to foreign friends and acquaintances, and reading the relevant literature, I found out that I had violated one of the corporate rules. That resulted in such a boycott from my colleagues. In Japan, it’s not customary to criticize. A person needs to understand his or her own mistake and correct it. That’s the only way to learn.
Most Eastern countries have high-context cultures. Many things in them are not said directly. One has to feel being wrong and form the right behaviour. Ignorance of this cultural peculiarity can not only complicate the dialogue but also destroy it.
It turned out that my mistake was about looking inappropriate in the workplace. At our company, each employee had a closet where he or she kept his or her business clothes. I often rode my bike to work and, of course, changed into a business suit upon my arrival. At some point, however, I didn’t manage to do that on time. In our culture, that would not have mattered, but for the Japanese that was very important.
Metaphorically speaking, when you arrive in the East, you are holding a fragile porcelain vase. One wrong move and it can easily break. One can glue the parts later but the vase won’t take its original form any more. Therefore, it is better to control your every action and literally ‘probe’ every step in the new culture. Cross-cultural empathy is of great importance in that matter.
– Are cross-cultural empathy and emotional intelligence synonymous notions?
– Yes, they are two facets of the same diamond. I would say that empathy is part of the ‘piggy bank’ of our cross-cultural intelligence. It is the ability to signal to an interlocutor that you understand and accept them.
I gained a great experience of cross-cultural communication in England during my MBA studies. Our group included many people from different cultures. Specialists from different fields from Australia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Germany, France, and other countries studied with me. We were all very different and tried to find a common language. Often we had to literally restructure our own thinking in order to do that.
Interestingly, there were many representatives of Muslim cultures in the group. That presupposed certain rules in establishing communication. For example, Muslims have Ramadan, a month of obligatory fasting from dawn to sunset. Cross-cultural empathy expressed itself in the fact that all students and teachers tried not to eat or drink in front of those who were fasting because of understanding that such restrictions were not easy for those people. The Muslim students, in their turn, were very grateful to us.
Cross-cultural empathy is a mutual process, in which both parties try to understand each other and make communication comfortable for everyone.
It is great when people accept other people’s differences with understanding and make it a point of common ground rather than a point of separation.
– Sincerity and openness are among the main traits of the Russian national character. Are all foreigners ready for that kind of communication?
– I have always wondered where the fine line between national culture, ethnicity, and the personal characteristics of people lies. In some cases, we can feel comfortable with some people and uncomfortable with others even within our own country. Sometimes, on the contrary, two people from different countries understand each other perfectly even without knowing the language or immersing themselves in any cultural peculiarities.
Openness is something that is well understood by our so-called ‘soulmates’ regardless of the cultural codes that are embedded in their consciousness.
Although, openness is perceived differently in different cultures. When I lived in England, I had many foreign friends who came there to study or work, just as I did. However, I had no English friends. To become closer to these people, you have to go through several layers of communication. I managed to show my openness only at a certain level of communication, after a while. That was not easy but those friends with whom we went through all the stages in establishing such cross-cultural communication have stayed with me forever.
– Today, you are developing the International Business Ethics programme. Why is that project extremely important for you?
– That project’s background can be divided into two parts. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the programme existed for five years. It represented a cycle of conversations with people from the fields of business, culture, education, and other areas somehow related to international activities.
The idea to create such a project came to me after my coming back to Russia after working in Japan, studying in England, and travelling in different countries. I knew from my own experience how interesting and challenging cross-cultural communication could be. I wanted to share useful tips that I had gained by trial and error and thus open the door to this wonderful world for other people. My knowledge could help them in building a career or simply in getting to know different regions and people.
I thought that Russia had many other interesting experts able to uncover the topic of intercultural communication from different perspectives and give a broader picture of it. That is how the format of conversations was born. During our dialogues, not only my interlocutor and I but also listeners could gain useful information.
In 2020, I decided to make a pause because of the pandemic. During the lockdown and quarantine, many people were in a stressful state. Intuitively, I understood that the audience was not ready to focus on the topics we were raising in the programme. We needed a break. At that point, I had recorded about 200 conversations with different people. We talked about business in India, China, Europe, an the USA. I think that, in the future, I will be able to combine them into a single compilation with useful tips on establishing a business dialogue with different regions of the world.
Recently, I decided to resume the conversations with experts from different fields of activity. Although the new phase of the project’s development presupposes a wider spectrum of topics covered, the title will remain the same. At the same time, we plan to talk not only about business ethics but also about intercultural communication in general. The conversations will touch on such topics as leadership, building strong teams, and maintaining a healthy atmosphere in them.
All these topics are especially relevant today. Firstly, businesses are learning to work under uncertainty. Therefore, managers and team members need to acquire new skills and knowledge and develop cross-cultural intelligence. Secondly, in Russia, we can observe active reorientation of many business processes towards the East. That causes a new wave of interest in studying the principles of cross-cultural communication.
The International Business Ethics is my social project. I want to believe that it will really be useful to all those around me.
– Your work is incredibly interesting and very useful. Where can one listen to recordings of your programme?
– One can listen to the programme broadcasts on Mediametrix radio. I also have a personal website where I regularly post useful information and share my professional experience and tips on establishing intercultural communication.
I also have a YouTube channel, which is being actively developed today. On this platform, I publish mostly entertainment content but it can also be useful to some people. For example, I make videos in English about Russia for those foreigners who want to learn more about our country’s culture. I shoot all the most interesting things I see in Moscow during my walks using my phone. For example, the video about Maslenitsa got a great response from my international audience.
Many of my friends from different countries who have never been to Russia said that they wanted to visit our country after watching my reviews. I am glad that I can make my own, albeit small, contribution to building such ‘intercultural bridges’.
I make small videos with professional tips in a simple and relaxed format for my Russian-speaking audience.
In general, I am open for communication, personal consultations, training sessions, conferences, and other events. You can contact me through my website or social media. As a communication expert, I very much appreciate the opportunities for open communication that digitalization gives us.
– What is your dream?
– My dream is about continuing to create. I like the fact that the International Business Ethics project not only broadcasts valuable information for a certain audience but also brings people together. Many experts start communicating with one another after the programs are released. However, I feel I have a potential to fulfil even bigger ideas. I want to be as useful as possible to the people around me. That is why I dream about new projects.
I dream to shape an ideal environment with people finding my work useful and me finding communication with them useful to me as well. This exchange of energies always gives me an impetus to move forward.
If speaking about simpler dreams, I want to learn to draw. That activity fascinates me for two reasons. Firstly, it allows one to activate the right side of the brain and develop holistic thinking. Secondly, creativity and art are other useful tools for deeper immersion in other cultures. For example, I am very interested in oriental painting and calligraphy.
And, of course, I plan to continue practicing foreign languages. One can’t succeed in that as well as in sports without constant training. Moreover, I’d like to improve my linguistic arsenal by mastering some Oriental language.
Photos are taken from Marina Dzhashi’s personal archive
Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov