When working with a group that consists of more than one person, communication becomes important for succeeding in whatever brought the group together. When working with a random group of people from different countries and with a different native language than English communication or the lack thereof sometimes seems to be the foundation of simply everything.
Say we have a team of eight students studying at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and half of them are Chinese the other half British or European. Their goal: a university project over two terms, including a British client and a final presentation of their work. The two main challenges faced by the group are: different English levels and different cultural backgrounds.
Communication problems because of different English levels
The different English levels of group members is the root of the problem. The Chinese students in our UEA group have a disadvantage, since they started learning English much later than most European students, therefore their English isn’t as advanced as that of the other half of the group. The simple conclusion of this: the group is obviously facing a communication problem.
60% of Chinese students asked, say that they are often still silently translating the last words of a question when the other part of the group is already discussing the answer. This lack of contribution to group discussions, leads to frustration. The non-Chinese members on the other hand are eager to move on and not stop the flow of the discussion to explain a certain word or concept too many times. In the worst case scenario communication comes to a complete halt and with it the project.
A culture of dissent
The second reason for this communication problem is the different cultural backgrounds; this further perpetuates the discussion imbalance. Whereas most of the European students are used to openly discussing problems, for most Chinese students this is a quite difficult task. This is made even more difficult by potential insecurities about their English skills.
In China it is mostly uncommon to admit that one hasn’t understood somebody, let alone criticise another person for speaking too much, or too fast, especially in public. In most western countries on the other hand, problems are discussed more openly. Most European university students at some point learn that a culture of dissent is seen as something very valuable. The European students therefore expect Chinese students to openly address problems just as they do themselves.
The solution to better teamwork in an international group
The solution to this is four-fold. First of all, it helps to have one designated person to moderate meetings, thus ensuring nobody takes over the discussion and pushing quieter members to overcome their shyness and contribute to the conversation.
Second, the European students have to continually remind themselves to speak slowly and clearly. Imagine you’d have to follow a heated discussion in a language different from your native one.
Third, the Chinese students have to try and overcome their fear of interrupting other students to remind them to speak slowly or repeat something. Creating a safe environment in which everybody feels comfortable to address issues is essential for this.
Lastly, creating communication documents on dropbox, gives students with less advanced English an opportunity to contribute to the discussion, but without time-pressure. Often writing down an idea in your own home helps take off the pressure and contributes to the discussion flow a great deal.
Ultimately, intercultural communication between group members is an on-going process, as John Powell says: “Communication (only) works for those who work at it.”
Fast facts on how to stimulate intercultural communication
- Create an environment that makes everybody comfortable to address problems
- If you’re a native English speaker speak slowly and clearly
- Be open to constructive criticism
- Use systems such as dropbox to give an alternative way of contributing ideas
- Be aware of cultural differences