Cross-cultural communication: Why you should volunteer abroad
Photo: Tim Borny
Cross-cultural communication is challenging. Each culture has its own set of rules, and we all carry a collection of cultural biases when we interact with people.
For example, in countries like Japan, Indonesia and Thailand strong emotional reactions like shouting or walking out of the room is frowned upon. Whereas in countries like Italy, France, and the United States it’s more acceptable.
As the need for multinational communication increases, cross-cultural skills are on the rise. The global workforce is rising, more people are traveling than ever before. Following that, the risk of offending someone through a lack of cultural understanding is greater than ever before.
What is cross-cultural communication?
Cross-cultural communication is the process of understanding the differences in how people communicate. From non-verbal gestures to the use of language and even physical space, these all play a part in how well a message is received across different cultures.
Why are cross-cultural communication skills important?
We live in an increasingly globalized world. Since the rise of the internet and air travel, we are no longer only communicating with only people in our cities or countries. As a result, being able to communicate across cultural barriers successfully has become a valuable life skill.
Not only can it enrich your experiences when you travel abroad, but businesses with an international reach are listing it as a requirement on their job posts.
What are the benefits of cross-cultural communication in the workplace?
An employee with strong cross-cultural communication skills can help a business avoid potentially embarrassing situations. A misunderstood message or culturally offensive comment or gesture can ruin relationships with investors, employees, and customers.
Here are some of the benefits of a cross-cultural workforce:
Creativity and innovation: Our culture influences the way we interact with the world. By having a variety of viewpoints, teams can gain new perspectives that will give them a competitive advantage.
In a recent study published by Forbes, it found that the best way to ensure continuous development of new ideas is through an inclusive and diverse workplace.
Local market knowledge: When a business expands into a new country, it’s product or service needs to adapt. By having an understanding of local laws, regulations, and customs as well as native language skills and the cultural nuisances, the business will thrive.
Cultural sensitivity: By learning about another culture, you can help a business avoid any marketing fouls. For example, a print ad in South Africa might be considered clever locally, but could be confusing to foreign audiences.
Personal and professional growth: By working across cultures, you can have an enriching experience. It will teach you how to bond over similarities and differences, and help you become a global citizen. It will broaden your horizons, avoid an ethnocentric worldview and leave any prejudices or stereotypes behind.
Your colleagues from other cultures can expose you to new skills and ways to work. You’ll also develop an international network which can take your career to exciting directions beyond your hometown or country of birth.
How volunteering abroad can improve your cross-cultural communication skills
So how do people develop cross-cultural communication skills? By working with people from different backgrounds.
The only catch is that not all of us are exposed to other cultures before we enter the workplace.
One of the best ways to develop this skill before you land your first job is through volunteering.
Volunteering abroad helps you understand the cultural differences in a community. Learning the nuances between your culture and theirs will help you make a genuine impact and improve communication with the project partners on the ground.
For example, people in Nepal tend to be family-focused, relaxed and have a collectivist mindset. While volunteering on community development projects in the country, you’ll need to keep these cultural traits in mind. It will make it easier for you to implement a new idea, get approval for a project and see results.
By choosing a volunteering project that focuses on cross-cultural communication, you’ll learn:
- how different cultures approach sensitive topics
- how to navigate a work environment with people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures
- how to improve your leadership skills by learning what motivates people from different cultures
- how different cultures approach manners, etiquette, women’s rights and more
- how to address cultural differences and how to leverage differences to meet your volunteering project’s goal.
How language immersion projects will develop your cross-cultural communication skills
Language and culture are strongly interlinked. By learning another language, you’ll get an insight into another culture.
It can be as simple as understanding a joke, a cultural reference or using the local slang.
On the other hand, in learning another language you can gain a new perspective on your own culture. By volunteering to teach English abroad, you’ll facilitate meaningful cultural exchange and learn how other people view you.
You’ll also develop cross-cultural friendships and deeper connections. When you make friends with someone from a different background, you can learn about each other’s cultures on a much deeper level.
You’ll get introduced to traditional foods or take part in unfamiliar traditions. While some practices might seem strange at first, it will force you to get outside of your comfort zone and see what daily life is like for other people around the world.
All these experiences add extra layers to understanding what makes a person from another culture tick.
Learn a new language and travel the world
Improve your cross-cultural communication skills with one of GVI’s language immersion programs.
You’ll get to travel to destinations around the world, work on sustainable volunteering projects and learn to speak the local language.
Whether you’re volunteering on community development projects or teaching in a school, you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Speak to someone from our team today.
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- Cape Town
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