Cross-cultural Communication: How to Bridge the Distance With Remote Freelancers

Small businesses can collaborate with people down the street as easily people on the other side of the world, as long as the right technology is in place. But how well are you communicating with the remote freelancers you’ve partnered with?

We tend to take regional differences in stride when we know what to expect. When we work across borders, especially when we connect virtually instead of in person, it can be easy to forget just how different our perspectives can be. At least when you travel, there are plenty of cues to remind you that you’re exploring new territory!

So how can you shift your perspective and help cross-border relationships go more smoothly? In this post, we’ll look at some of the most common cross-cultural communication considerations and what you can do about them.

Be curious about our differences

Technology has given communication a dynamic new dimension over the past few decades, but cultural experts have been exploring differences in how we relate to each other much longer than that.

Culture is what one expert, Pellegrino Riccardi, describes as “a system of behaviour [sic] that helps us act in an accepted or familiar way.” But accepted and familiar depend on where you are and where you’re from. In the 1950s, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote the book on what he called “The Silent Language in Overseas Business” to help give travelers a better frame of reference.

“Not only will [the businessman of the future] need to be well versed in the economics, law, and politics of the area, but he will have to understand, if not speak, the silent languages of other cultures.”
— Edward T. Hall

He felt that considering five points—the language of time, space, things, friendship, and agreement—could help people better understand other cultures. Two of these are particularly important to explore when you work with freelancers from around the world:

  • The language of agreements: Western countries tend to spell everything out with laws and regulations—but that isn’t necessarily true everywhere. Agreements can also be shaped by moral practices or informal customs.
  • The language of time: People make a lot of assumptions about time. For example, in North America, if you get a quick response you’re likely to feel that you or the topic at hand are a top priority. In other countries, however, a slow response could signal its perceived importance or just a bias toward a longer and more thorough decision-making process.

Be prepared to spot the hurdles

The late professor LaRay M. Barna, another expert in this area, identified common stumbling blocks of intercultural communication.

Connecting with other people isn’t always easy: We have a lot in common, but everyone has their own way of looking at the world. Put differently, people might work toward a shared goal but have different ideas about how to get there.

Unique cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes can influence how, when, and why we react to any situation. Is the freelancer you’ve engaged comfortable telling you when something won’t work? Do they expect communication to be more formal than you’re used to, or more frequent?

What to do about it: Learn to expect differences and ask questions to help make sure you’re communicating clearly—best practices whenever you can’t meet someone face-to-face.

For example:

  • When multiple people are connecting online, give everyone an opportunity to share their thoughts.
  • Ask how the freelancer prefers to share and receive information.
  • Ask questions such as: “Are you happy with this recommendation? Why or why not?”
  • Confirm that you’re agreed on what a “successful” result will look like.
  • Listen to them and pay attention to details whenever you interact.

As you’ll see from the next few points, what people do can be just as important as what’s actually said—if not more so.

Speaking different native languages can spark misunderstandings. But it can also be harder to know when someone doesn’t catch nuances: Small differences can change the meaning of a word or phrase in ways you might not think of in passing.

What to do about it: Take advantage of video calls. They’re an opportunity for you to pay attention to nonverbal cues—which can be helpful signals when asking more questions, or further explanation, could be key to staying on the same page.

That said, behavior can also be easy to misinterpret. For example:

  • Crossed arms might come across as defensive. But they could also indicate when someone is feeling stressed or insecure.
  • We often see nodding as a sign of agreement or understanding. But someone could also nod because they have something to add, or just to show they’re paying attention.
  • Posture can be harder to read via video, but you can still likely get a sense of how someone is sitting. For example, someone who’s upright and engaged may feel more confident than someone who’s hunched over.

Symbols, gestures, social cues, and even facial expressions can be difficult to read. While Barna explained that expressions themselves are universal—we all smile if we’re happy, or frown if we’re upset—when people express emotions and reactions can be influenced by the cultural expectations we’re used to.

What to do about it: In “Understanding Cultural Perceptions of Emoticons Around the World,” language service provider Dynamic Language offers research tips that can help you navigate this potentially sensitive area.

For example, you can:

  • Check local media for hints, ideas, and flags for things to avoid—such as the words people use or how they interact.
  • Learn which emotional expressions are considered appropriate in a business setting.
  • Research both the recent and earlier history of the area you are communicating with.

This may seem ironic, given the topic of this article, but try to be cautious. Generalizations can help us make sense of new situations and relationships. The problem, Barna pointed out, is that preconceptions may or may not have any basis in truth.

What to do about it: Learning about different cultures can help strengthen your working relationships. But there are two things to keep in mind: Stereotypes oversimplify and are often exaggerated, and any generalizations may not apply to the person you’re working with. Instead of jumping to conclusions, be curious and ask questions.

Where to find more information

Partnering with freelancers in other parts of the world can help grow your business—and maybe even change a life. Here are a couple of resources where you can learn more about the characteristics and traditions of other countries:

Learn to actively watch and listen during online conversations. It’s easy to split your attention or multitask, but you might miss what’s being said or subtle clues that show your message isn’t connecting. With curiosity and understanding, you can get past these communication stumbling blocks.