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Communication in a multi-cultural society

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By Claire Payne

Interaction with people from other cultures, races, genders or classes occurs in all aspects of our daily lives and is often taken for granted. However, these are the differences that we need to adapt in the workplace and in society, both locally and globally.

Almost every organisation in South Africa has changed from how it was 20 years ago. Most companies today employ people from many different backgrounds and cultures. There is also more diversity within client and customer relations. A key aspect of this change is a significant increase in contact between people from different cultural backgrounds. To succeed in a multi-cultural society, businesses should acknowledge the diverse population, respect the individuality of employees and customers, and maintain an environment where everyone is treated with respect.

Intercultural communication is important to organisations as it examines how people from different cultures come together to work and communicate with one another. Businesses are realising the need for effective intercultural communication in their own countries, as well as when entering new or foreign territories. Without this competency, businesses could cause confusion, offence and misunderstanding. It is important to understand cultural differences to prevent damaging business relations due to communication gaps.

There is a great deal more to consider when engaging with customers and clients from a diverse background in the business environment today.This includes the style of language being used, understanding cultural backgrounds, maintaining appropriate behaviour and being aware of what could cause offence to others. Adopting proper business practices and etiquette not only gives confidence to both parties involved, but also shows professionalism and sets businesses apart from their competitors.

Additional difficulties in the workplace will also arise from a lack of knowledge, underlying apprehension and distrust that may occur when people from different cultures work together. These concerns can quickly escalate into larger problems and, if left unaddressed, can have a significantly negative impact on productivity and organisational unity.

The problem is that communicating effectively is actually quite difficult, especially in a culturally diverse environment.However, good communication is achievable.These steps can help us to communicate better when working with diverse groups:

? Respecting and acknowledging differences in communication styles between yourself and those around you. Do not make assumptions - often prejudice and stereotyping are a result of how differences are perceived and valued.

? Observing the behaviour of others and appreciating that communication is not just speaking and listening, but it is also about being aware of non-verbal communication. Body language can send messages that will reinforce or invalidate what you say verbally.

? Clarifying what is being communicated if you are unclear about something. Spending a little extra time to verify understanding can save a lot of time and frustration.

Many companies are embarking on diversity awareness training for their employees, that focuses on general understandings of diversity rather than learning specific habits or traits of a cultural group. These training sessions can help both managers and employees to communicate more effectively and learn more about each other to help create a unified workforce.

Managing or working in these environments can pose challenges, but it can also be the source of fresh perspectives and ideas. In today?s diverse world, it is possible tostrengthen these advantages and reduce the risks through both awareness of the complexity of communication and adapting our specific communication techniques. The better businesses are able to do this, the greater the chance they will have to develop trust and enhance collaboration in the workplace.

To learn more about communicating effectively with customers and clients, consider the University of Cape Town Professional Communication and Office Management short course. Contact Stacey on 021 447 7565 or [email protected] Alternatively, visit GetSmarter

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