Effective Communication and Cultural Sensitivity
Communication has been one of the most overused and least understood terms in the modern day societies.On the one hand there is a relatively low understanding of the meaning of communication, on the other hand understanding about what makes simple communication effective is also uncommon.
As per oxford dictionary, communication is: Noun : [mass noun] the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium.
Going a bit into the basics of communication, conventionally there are three essential elements in communication. A source (sender) of a message (or information, idea), a receiver of message (or an audience, reader, viewer) that receives, interprets and understands the message and a medium that encapsulates and transfers the message from source to receiver. The media could be in various forms like audio (using sounds as in talking, speaking, speeches, radio stations, audio cassettes and CDs ), written (as in letters, articles, notes, books and emails ) and visual ( as in dramas, acts, plays , road shows and television where a large part of message is communicated through physical body expressions of face, hands, legs etc) . Also, sometimes communication is classified as verbal and non-verbal communication.
More often than not, the different types of media are used together to deliver a message. Most of the visual media is usually accompanied with audio to increase the impact of communication. However, each medium of communication has its own significance and utility. While audio and visual media are the most common formats for day to day communication between individuals and groups, written communication may be the correct format for technical, detailed or legally important content.
Besides these popular media, our spiritual gurus and religious clerics also talk about mental communication (or telepathy), which can be understood as a direct connection between two or more minds where thoughts and ideas are shared. This specific form of communication, however, is widely debated on its authenticity and is not generally discussed during sessions on social, personal and business communication.
Effectiveness in communication
Quality issues can make or mar the communicated message during transmission from the sender to the receiver. Distortions arising out of lack of quality (in any of the three elements) could result in sub-optimal or outright incorrect responses. For instance, if the source is not coherent in its idea (or thoughts), the receiver would only get a vague message, leading to confusion. If the medium chosen is inappropriate – wrong choice of words, discordant body language or incongruous tone of voice- the message transmitted could incite an unexpected reaction from the receivers.
Similarly, If the receiver is not attentive (due to distractions, health or interest related reasons) or is not comfortable with the language used by the source, then the message’s true meaning and impact may be lost.
Effective communication, thus, means that the desired coherent message is transmitted using the most efficient media, for the receiver to interpret and understand its correct meaning and context, leading to actions or initiatives in accordance with the expectations if the sender. Is there a way to ensure this?
Let’s take a closer look again at the oxford-dictionary definition of ‘Communication’ above. A key word therein to note is ‘exchanging‘. So whilst ‘imparting‘, ‘speaking‘ and ‘writing‘ , all refer to one -way communication, ‘exchanging‘ refers to a two-way communication.
Thus herein becomes the significance of a fourth and a very critical element of communication – Feedback. Feedback has traditionally been the most neglected element in social, personal and business communication. It is important to acknowledge that two-way communication, involving feedback, is more precise and desirable when the message is complex, although one-way communication is more efficient in case of simple and straight forward messages. There is a much higher possibility of eliciting the right reaction from a receiver, if the receiver has opportunity to explain what message has been received and understood. There are numerous examples of blunders having been committed due to failure in effective communication. Despite delivering dramatic and highly applauded speeches, even politicians of high stature have witnessed big debacles, in the absence of accurate knowledge of public’s views, issues and grievances – a form of feedback to the politicians’ intent and initiatives. Parents have always struggled in their children’s up-bringing because of their failure to empathize with children on a variety of issues and subjects. Similarly, large corporations have faced failures on various occasions due to inadequate knowledge of employees’ commitment to the company’s values and vision.
Feedback could be as easy and as difficult as may be perceived, also depending on the context of the communication. Technically, feedback could be descriptive i.e. receiver describes what has been understood, evaluative i.e. receiver evaluates the message and responds based on conclusion about the sender’s nature, personality or intent, or it could be prescriptive i.e. receiver may make suggestions to the sender based his/her understanding of sender’s message and context.
Building an environment of trust and camaraderie makes feedback easier. In political arena or in corporate life, leaders who are more accessible to their colleagues, subordinates, friends and other stake holders are more likely to receive accurate feedback regarding their initiatives and communication. In personal life, bonds of love, respect and trust lay the foundation of accurate feedback, leading to lesser instances of misunderstandings and more enjoyable life.
Cultural Sensitivity in Communication
Another key aspect to being effective in communication is knowledge of cultural sensitivities, especially when communicating with people from different ethnic, social, cultural, religious or geographic backgrounds.
For instance, while it’s considered appropriate in the North America to shake hands immediately upon meeting strangers (for business) and to get straight into business discussions, this may not be the right approach in the Middle East and Asian nations, especially if it’s the first meeting. In Arab and Chinese cultures, building a gradual rapport with the concerned persons over a period of time and across several meetings is seen as the right way to approach business talks. In countries like India, offering hand for a shake in the very first meeting may not be right, especially with female counter-parts. A gentle nod of head with a pleasant smile and soft greetings could be seen as more appropriate. Voice intonation varies by country. For instance, in Japan, communicating softly is an expression of politeness, whereas in the Middle East, the opposite holds true, for the louder the voice, the more one is believed to be sincere.
Similarly, email communication also follows cultural etiquette in different parts of the world. While in American and European countries, focus is usually on being to-the-point in as brief a content as possible, the Middle eastern and South Asian cultures may have a story-line based approach, often more verbose. It is also essential to remember that emails fall short of expressing the emotions behind a thought or message. Careful wording and correct use of grammar and phrases is thus critical in conveying the message correctly, without offending the receivers.
Presentations also tend to follow different approaches sometimes. The style of presentation would also depend largely on the available time, hierarchical considerations and the background of receivers, and possibly not so much on where the presentation is being made. Presenting the key idea or solution first followed by a build-up explaining a structured approach to reach the solution, versus a suspense approach where build up around all the distress factors is used to attract and sustain attention, followed by the ‘bull’s eye’ solution or idea.
To summarize, major blunders and fall outs could be avoided if effective communication is practiced in all aspects of life. A simple start could be from conscious usage of correct words in day to day communication. Also, keeping in view the social, educational and cultural background of the recipients’ of a message would help in managing sensitivities.
With increasing globalization and standardization of business norms, the world is fast getting integrated and the differences and sensitivities are gradually blurring. Greater acceptance and tolerance is being observed in business and social meetings across the globe. However values of being polite, courteous, precise and honest would always continue to be appreciated.
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