At any given point in your day someone is trying to communicate with you. You may be using the Internet for research or fun and see an ad (or two, or three). Maybe you get a number of emails informing you of deals at your favorite department store. Your coworkers and managers will try and communicate ideas and tasks, while your significant other may want to share the triumphs and trials of a rough day at work. Good communication skills are essential as you will always have to interact with people, whether over the phone, through text message or email, on a website, or even through in-person contact.

While the exponential expansion of technology has made the globe smaller and communication over long distances easier, it has also stunted the growth of our personal communication skills. In-person conversations are shorter, more difficult to initiate and are full of misunderstandings. These misunderstandings have the unfortunate opportunity to multiply if there are social and cultural differences between the people communicating with each other.

This is the situation that multinational corporations can face as they operate in many different countries. Executives from China work closely with executives from Russian, who in turn work with executives from Brazil. Even two people who speak the same language and have the same cultural touchstones may have a difficult time communicating. It cannot be any easier when people from different backgrounds have to understand each other.

In order to understand the importance of these skills I spoke to Dr. Steve May, an associate professor of communication studies at the Kenan-Flager Business School at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Donna M. Lubrano, adjunct faculty member for the School of Business Management at Newbury College in Boston.

The need for communication skills

One way to tell that communications skills are important is that many businesses are now asking schools to focus on them in their classrooms.

According to Lubrano, “all businesses are focusing on communications skills for entry-level employees.” The ubiquity of this focus might be because many potential employees “lack the ability to speak to customers, present ideas and have the communication skills to work in the team environment that is part of the new business landscape.”

May is in agreement, saying that “businesses are consistently asking for stronger oral and written communication skills. Businesses also consistently state that they seek graduates who have strong critical thinking skills and the ability to work effectively with others. The demand for these communication skills has been very consistent during the time that I have been an educator.”

So communication skills are important to businesses. Why, then, would they be even more important for international business students?

Benefits of effective communication

Unless you are raised observing different cultural norms in your household, you are probably only familiar with the ones practiced in the United States. Even those norms fluctuate a bit from state to state and region to region. Misunderstandings that occur from breaking cultural norms can have especially deleterious consequences in the business world.

“In relationship to international business, not understanding the communication styles of the countries/cultures you are working with can lose a sale, a deal, a joint venture or other partnership,” Lubrano told me. “This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication.”

Having a normal conversation with someone we know is sometimes very difficult. Having a conversation where the parties are not from the same culture, are speaking in a borrowed language and negotiating over sensitive business deals has the chance to go sour if communication breaks down.

Lubrano provided an example of how this can happen very easily.

“How you hand someone a business card, how you handle the business card, how you store the business card after you have viewed it, show signs of respect. In the US, we take someone’s business card with one hand, look at for a minute then stick it in our purse/pocket. We may even write on the card. This is what we with a lot of humor call a “CNN,” a ‘Cultural no no.’ In many cultures this would be rude – even disrespectful.”

While no one can prevent themselves from ever committing a faux pas, understanding how to communicate properly can limit the chances for potential disrespectful moments, especially during business negotiations. Honing your skills can also help. Understanding that these small moments can present a large danger is important as well.

What is causing the erosion of our communication skills? Part of the problem, as alluded to by Barnwell’s article, may be the vast amount of technological devices we carry around at all times.

Trapped by the screen

A few facts for you to digest, as reported by a Pew Research Center paper titled “Teens, Smartphones & Texting” from March, 2012:

  • 77 percent of teenagers have a cell phone
  • 63 percent of teens say they exchange text messages every day
  • Over a two year period (2009-2011) the median number of text messages teens sent per day rose from 50 to 60
  • Only 35 percent said they socialize face-to-face on a daily basis.

The way we communicate has been changed by our ability to talk and text when nowhere near each other. It has even changed the way we communicate when near each other, as many people will text a friend or loved one who is in the same room in order to keep a conversation or comment secret.

May has noticed the change that has occurred in our ability to communicate, especially among his students.

“Technology has limited students’ ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face contexts with a range of diverse co-workers. With social media, in particular, students are able to expose themselves to a limited cross-section of the population — typically others who are similar and have comparable values, beliefs and attitudes. As a result, it has impaired their ability to communicate with others who are different from them.”

Communicating face-to-face is still a very important component of building a lasting rapport with someone. Lubrano has seen the skills erode in her students as well.

“In terms of verbal communication many students cannot think on their feet. This is critical in international business when the situation may be fluid or shifting rapidly. How do you analyze both verbal and non-verbal cues when things don’t go as planned? How do you have a successful outcome when all the ducks you had in order get out of sync? How do you articulate your company’s value proposition? This is why a show such as ‘Shark Tank’ is successfully. We see the importance of communication both planned and impromptu.”

Technology has also had some benefits for students that can be taken advantage of in the business world. May said that “technology has strengthened students’ abilities to connect and network with others. It has also enabled their ability to access diverse information from a wide range of sources in order to understand and solve problems.”

If we are able to see the erosion that is happening in our communication skills, how can we work to strengthen them? What steps can be taken to ensure we have the level of skills employers want us to have?

Breaking bad habits

As businesses grow and expand their global territories, effective communication will be key to forging new partnerships and keeping existing ones.

Right now, according to May, “is an ideal time to focus on international business. We function within an increasingly global economy. As a result, it is important to understand international business norms and trends, which may vary from country to country, region to region.”

Lubrano also spoke about the need to “[d]evelop a global mindset.” Future business growth may depend on the ability of managers and employees to be culturally sensitive and adaptable when doing business in another country. May said the best way to do this is to sharpen the communication skills of our students.

“The most successful employees — and companies — of the future will be those that are able to adapt to the diverse needs of consumers and citizens in a global economy. Doing so, though, requires an understanding of how to communicate effectively with such diverse audiences.”

Having great communication skills may not guarantee success in business, but it can help. When working in international business, it can be a tremendous help.

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