How To Connect Effectively Across Different Cultures Online?
Connection is the first step in building a relationship. Before a relationship can develop deeply, someone needs to first say “hello”, followed by the timid dance of “let’s get to know each other”. All this happens before each person decides whether to deepen the relationship, be it romantic, personal or professional.
For remote or virtual teams, the added challenge of being physically apart can make the connection and building relationships difficult. We are social creatures and we learn from each other when we converse and interact in person. The only real way to connect with someone and build a strong relationship remotely, is to keep showing up, in good times and in bad times, and through multiple communication channels.
In addition to being physically apart, most remote or virtual teams are also culturally diverse, with each team member coming from different cities, countries or even regions. This makes connecting and building relationships ever more challenging as we navigate timezones and decipher cultural nuances.
In this blog post, we will be focusing on professional relationships in the context of a virtual or remote team. However, much of this can be applied to other types of relationships too.
Why Is It Important To Connect?
According to Gallup research, where they surveyed a random sample of 10,000 employees, indicated that trust is essential to their engagement in the workplace. Trust boosts each team member’s sense of belonging and subsequently improves efficiency and performance.
The responsibility of building of trust and belonging in a remote team does not only belong to the manager or leader. Everyone in the team needs to connect to each other and be involved in building trust and belongingness. However, trust, belongingness and relationships are not built over a handful of conversations. Checking in, saying “hello”, and starting conversations has to happen regularly for relationships and teams to flourish.
Connection must occur first before any relationship can grow. A connection starts when two persons acknowledge and recognise each other’s presence. How the connection is made will influence the dynamics of the relationship and how it develops over time.
As we shared in the intro, it typically starts with a “hello”. The greeting “hello” is so simple, yet powerful that it commands the attention of the other, which subsequently opens up an opportunity to get to know each other further.
As Dorothy once said in Jerry Maguire…
You had me at hello.
A remote team I once worked with, had team members who connected to each other unequally. A team member, let’s call her Sarah, made an effort to greet everyone and engage in small talk as other members joined the conference call. While another team member, let’s call him Kevin, seemed resistant to the efforts to connect and replied to small talk in a cold and curt manner. Over time, Sarah built strong relationships with her peers, while Kevin remained distant.
When crunch time arrived for a project the team was working on, Sarah managed to rally her peers to complete the project, while Kevin started arguments, scolded and blamed others. Had Sarah not made the effort to connect with others on the team, the project might have failed entirely and the team disintegrated. For connection to be meaningful and effective, it has to be a joint effort of everyone on the team.
What Is The Difference Between Connection and Conversation?
Connection and Conversation are often used interchangeably, both with the intention of building relationships. However, these are two different steps of the relationship-building process. Connection is the first step of reaching out, the first contact and getting the attention of the other. Typically, the discussion in the connection step is surface-level, focused on small talk, current events, etc.
While Conversation is the second step of the relationship-building process, where we go beyond the connection to sustain attention and dig deeper into each other’s hearts and minds. Conversations can involve deeper and meaningful conversations around values, beliefs, personal stories, perspectives, vulnerabilities and many more. This is where the sense of belonging is cultivate. However, Conversation cannot first happen without Connection.
If you are connecting with a non-native English speaker, saying “hello” in the other’s mother tongue will help you a long way. In doing so, it indicates to the other that you are open and willing to go beyond your comfort zone to meet them.
The conversations that occur after the “hello” will set the tone and dynamic of the relationship. Although, the additional complexity of connecting online means that cultural, contextual and environmental cues and meaning are not readily available to each other. This can lead to messages lost in translation or good intentions misinterpreted.
One important aspect to be aware of is that the initial connection and conversation forms the impression of each other, the first impression. As humans, we have the tendency to make quick judgements about whether a person is reliable, trustworthy, competent and many others based on our cultural values.
Research says that first appearance affects our perception of the other, from their likeability to their trustworthiness. Researchers also suggest that first impressions formed online are often more negative than first impressions formed face to face.
However, we must keep in mind that first impressions are NOT facts. A remote or virtual work environment with peers from different cultures is riddled with gaps. When interacting with people from other cultures AND online, it’s best to give the benefit of the doubt. A non-fluent English speaker does not make them less competent than a fluent English speaker. Or a chatty person doesn’t make them more reliable than a more reserved person.
While we cannot control the impression others have on us, we can set the tone early by demonstrating openness, non-judgment and willingness to learn new and different perspectives.
What Can We Do To Connect Remotely?
There are certain things that we can do to ease the process from being a stranger to developing a relationship. While there are many ways to do this, here are three ways to connect remotely with scope.
Be proactive and reach out to your colleagues. Reaching out regularly will give you and your colleague a window into each other’s world. Don’t wait for your colleague to put in the effort to start conversations. The proactive person will be in a stronger position to set the tone and dynamic of the relationship. Reaching out is not limited to replying emails. Here are some other ways to reach out.
- Schedule virtual coffee sessions regularly, where both of you prepare a cup of hot drink, coffee or tea or your favourite beverage, and chat about anything within the scheduled time.
- When you come across an article, video or podcast that is of interest to your colleague, share it with them and add a short personal note.
- When you log online and you see them online too, take a few seconds to greet them and ask about their day.
In a virtual team, there are no physical or environmental reminders for you to greet each other. A virtual workplace is also deprived of serendipitous moments that you get in the office space. Find ways to remind yourself to check in with your colleague.
Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.
Be humble. Be patient.
Not everyone speaks the same language. And even if they do, their fluency in that language may vary. Also, language differs based on context, such as American English differs from British English and from South African English. Likewise China’s Mandarin differs from Taiwanese Mandarin and from Malaysian Mandarin. Within a conversation, a non-native speaker go through the mental process of:
- translating what was heard to their native language
- formulating a response in their native language
- mentally translating the message into the spoken language
- and responding in the speaker’s language
The mental acrobatics of on-demand translation requires energy, time and skill to master. While not everyone speaks with the speed and fluency of a native speaker, taking a few extra seconds to pause, wait and listen to your colleagues’ responses can be tremendously empowering.
And subsequently, they are encouraged to participate and contribute to the relationship. Also, be aware that internet connection might be of varying speed and stability in different locations. Videos become grainy and voices become robotic. Be patient, persistent, continue to reach out and listen to each other.
Be mindful. Be curious. Ask and Share.
When you are unfamiliar with each other’s culture and environment, it is best to be mindful in your online interaction. A word can be mistaken. A tone of voice or bow of the head or even a smile can easily be misinterpreted. The misinterpretations of even the smallest of actions can make or break a workplace relationship.
To be mindful, you need to pause, observe and listen. To pause means to be silent momentarily and observe the other’s response. Do they look comfortable? Do they look confused? Are they responding with enthusiasm or with silence? Are they asking questions or listening patiently?
While we can do this instinctively in person, observing the other’s behaviour online requires practice. When you encounter a response or behaviour that is not typical of the other, humbly and curiously enquire about whether your action has influenced the observed behaviour.
For example, you gave feedback on a piece of work and the response was confusion or a sullen expression. Pause for a moment, observe a little further and ask if your feedback was unclear. Asking from a place of curiosity and humility shows to others that you are willing to be corrected and to learn ways of communication that work best for everyone.
Once you have asked, remember to share your perspective about how you felt about the situation and your assumptions. When you show you are willing to listen to others, others will reciprocate and be willing to listen to your perspective.
Ready to Connect?
Connecting remotely is the accumulation of all the small moments of reaching out, listening, observing, asking and sharing. A moment connection, no matter how small, will help you and your colleague to further understand each other’s cultural values, diverse perspectives, behavioural nuances and their individual preferences. In the long run, connecting remotely on a regular basis sets the path in deepening professional relationships. Together, you can both learn from each other, grow in the workplace and create a virtual work environment that is meaningful and enriching to all.
Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates thriving and engaging workplaces.
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