How To Connect Effectively Across Different Cultures Online?

Making friends and building relationships with people from different cultures is challenging enough. How do you do this online?

How To Connect Effectively Across Different Cultures Online?
Photo by KOBU Agency / Unsplash

Connection is the first step in building a relationship. Before a relationship can develop, someone says “hello”, followed by the “let’s get to know each other” dance. All this happens before each person decides whether to deepen the relationship, be it romantic, personal or professional.

The added challenge of being physically apart makes connection and relationship-building difficult. We are social creatures and learn so much about each other from in-person interactions. In a remote environment, the only real way to connect and build strong relationships is to keep showing up in good and 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. Cultural differences and varying time zones make connecting and building relationships more challenging.

This article will focus on professional relationships in a virtual or remote team context. However, the insights shared in this article can also be applied to other types of relationships.

Why Is It Important To Connect?

According to Gallup’s research, which surveyed a random sample of 10,000 employees, trust is essential to workplace engagement. Trust boosts each team member’s sense of belonging and, subsequently, improves efficiency and performance.

The responsibility of building trust and belonging in a remote team belongs to more than just the manager or leader. Everyone on the team must put in the time and effort to connect, develop trust, and foster belonging.

However, trust, belongingness, and relationships are not made over a handful of conversations. Checking in, saying “hello”, and starting conversations must happen regularly for relationships and teams to flourish.

A connection must occur first before any relationship can grow. A connection starts when two persons acknowledge and recognise each other’s presence. Subsequently, the connection will influence the dynamics of the relationship and how it develops over time.

As we shared in the introduction, 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.

A remote team I once worked with had members who connected unequally. One team member, let’s call her Sarah, made an effort to greet everyone and engage in small talk while other members joined the conference call. Another team member, let’s call him Kevin, seemed resistant to connecting and replied to small talk coldly and curtly. Over time, Sarah built strong relationships with her peers, while Kevin remained distant.

When the project’s key milestone was fast approaching, Sarah rallied her peers to complete the project on time. All the while, Kevin started arguments and blamed others for shortcomings. Had Sarah not made an effort to connect with others on the team, the project might have failed, and the group might have 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 to build relationships. However, these are two different steps of the relationship-building process. Connection is in the act of reaching out, the 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.

Conversation is essential in relationship-building, where people go beyond the connection to sustain attention and dig deeper into each other’s lives, hearts, and minds. Sustained conversations may lead to more profound and meaningful discussions around values, beliefs, personal stories, perspectives, vulnerabilities, and more. The cultivation of belonging starts here. However, conversation cannot first happen without connection.

If you connect with a non-native English speaker, saying “hello” in the other’s mother tongue may help to start a conversation. Doing so indicates to the other that you are open and willing to go beyond your comfort zone to meet them where they are.

Conversations after the “hello” can set the tone and dynamic of the relationship. However, connecting online means cultural, contextual, and environmental cues and meanings are not readily available. These complexities can lead to messages being “lost in translation” or good intentions misinterpreted as bad.

The initial connection forms impressions, the first impression. We tend to make quick judgements about whether a person is reliable, trustworthy, competent, and many other things based on our cultural values. Yet, we often fail to consider that others have different cultural values.

Research suggests that first appearances affect our perception of others, such as likeability and trustworthiness. Researchers also suggest that online first impressions are often more negative than those formed face-to-face.

However, we must remember that first impressions are NOT facts. Many gaps exist in a remote work environment, especially with peers from different cultures. 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.

We cannot control others’ impressions of us. However, we can set the tone early by demonstrating openness, nonjudgment, and willingness to learn new and different perspectives.

📸 on Unsplash by @windows

What Can We Do To Connect Remotely?

We can do certain things to ease the process of moving 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.

Reach out.

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 to emails. Here are some other ways to reach out.

  • Schedule virtual coffee sessions regularly, where you can chat over a hot drink, coffee or tea, or your favourite beverage within the scheduled time
  • When you come across an article, video or podcast that interests your colleague, share it with them and add a short personal note.
  • When you log online and see them, take a few seconds to greet them and ask about their day.

A virtual workplace is also deprived of serendipitous moments that you get in the office space. Also, there are no physical or environmental cues to keep your team members in mind. Find ways to remind yourself to check in with your colleague.

Be humble. Be patient.

Not everyone speaks the same language. Even so, language fluency may vary. Also, language differs based on context; for example, American English differs from British English and South African English. Likewise, China’s Mandarin differs from Taiwanese Mandarin and Malaysian Mandarin. Within a conversation, a non-native speaker goes through the mental process of:

  1. translating spoken language to their native language
  2. formulating a response in their native language
  3. mentally translating the message into the spoken language
  4. and responding in the speaker’s language

The mental acrobatics of on-demand translation require energy, time and skill to master. Not everyone speaks with the speed and fluency of a native speaker. Yet, taking a few extra seconds to pause, wait and listen to your colleagues’ responses can be tremendously empowering.

Subsequently, they are encouraged to participate and contribute to the relationship. Also, I'd like to point out that the internet might vary speed and stability in different locations. Videos become grainy, and voices become robotic. Be patient and persistent, and continue to reach out and listen to each other.

Be mindful. Be curious. Ask and Share.

When unfamiliar with each other’s culture and environment, it is best to be mindful in your online interactions. A word can be mistaken, and a tone of voice, a bow of the head, or even a smile can easily be misinterpreted. The misinterpretations of even the smallest 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 conduct that is not typical of the other, humbly and curiously enquire 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 momentarily, observe a little further, and ask if your feedback needs clarification. Asking from a place of curiosity and humility shows others that you are willing to be corrected and 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 ready to hear your perspective.

Would you be ready to connect?

Building relationships remotely is an accumulation of all the small moments of reaching out, listening, observing, asking, and sharing. No matter how small, a moment’s connection will help you and your colleague further understand each other’s cultural values, diverse perspectives, behavioural nuances, and individual preferences.

In the long run, connecting remotely regularly sets the path to 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.

This post is updated from the originally published post on Culture Spark Global on 21 October 2021 and written by the same author, Ling Ling Tai.