3 Steps to Better Cross-Cultural Communication

“There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in culture; there is only ‘different.’” That was the advice I got from a Rotarian mentor as a sixteen-year-old exchange student heading to Australia. It’s a message that I’ve never forgotten—and one that shapes my approach to cross-cultural communication today.

Making cultural comparisons is unhelpful. If I go to Australia and decide that Australian food is less interesting than Japanese food, then I start feeling superior. Alternatively, if I go to Australia and find the people there so friendly and easy-going that I start to find my fellow Japanese stiff and formal, I end up feeling inferior

Either way, the result’s the same—neither feeling superior nor feeling inferior actually help with communicating across cultures.

An effective global businessperson has to be able to relate across cultures. That’s why one of the most important steps I took when forming the curriculum at GLOBIS, my Japan-based business school, was to establish a cross-cultural communication course.

I was personally involved in designing the course (as I am with all our classes), so I can tell you the basic 3-step theory:

     1. Withhold judgment on which culture is “better.”
     2. Understand the basis of difference and find common ground.
     3. Build rapport based on respect for difference/shared common ground.

As a believer in cross-cultural communication, I’ve made it a family rule for all my children to go for a year abroad during high school. My third son is currently in Canada. One of his roommates there teased him by turning off the lights while he was in the shower. He was absolutely furious with him and he showed it. His straightforward (i.e. angry) reaction made it clear how far he was willing to be pushed, and his roommate stopped teasing him. They actually became better friends as a result.

What’s my takeaway from my son’s experience? That cross-cultural communication is not just about talking, but also about building bridges via non-verbal means—things like fooling around, fighting, arguing and doing sports.

When I was in Australia as a teenager, playing rugby, water polo and basketball certainly helped me “find common ground” and “build rapport” with my Australian teammates. It is far easier to have these sorts of experiences as a child than as an adult. (Rugby-tackling a prospective client may not be the best way to secure their business!)

Like learning to ride a bicycle, cross-cultural communication is a skill you never lose. I know that my experiences in Australia became a lifelong asset for me.

For example, after returning to Japan from Harvard Business School—somewhere I’d probably not have gone without my year abroad in Australia—I became the first chair of the YEO (Young Entrepreneurs' Organization) in Asia and the first Asian on their international board. I represented Asia, in all its cultural diversity, in a global forum and needed to have high-level East-East and East-West cross-cultural communication skills.

I read somewhere that the age at which you learn English (or any foreign language) will affect the way you relate to your overseas counterparts. People who learn English via immersion at a high-school age can easily build rapport because they speak in a natural, colloquial style and have the capacity to fool around a bit.

Contrastingly, people who only learn English as adults will tend to speak more formally and stiffly, with little in the way of humor or colloquialisms. This can make them rather off-putting.

The younger you start cross-cultural communication, the more capable of natural, frank and honest communication—in one word, relatable—you will be.

If you want to be a good leader in an international context, you need to start young: Get a “deep immersion” experience abroad in your teens, and build on that by following the 3 steps I outlined earlier.

I hope that my five sons, by spending a year abroad as high schoolers, will acquire the skills they need to succeed in our globalized world.

Cross-cultural communication ability is one of the most valuable intangible assets that anyone can have.

And if you disagree, I’m quite happy to fight you over it!

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Mr. Yoshito Hori established GLOBIS Management School in 1992 and GLOBIS Capital Partners in 1996. In 2003, GLOBIS started its original MBA program which, in 2006, received accreditation from the Japanese Ministry of Education and gained “university” status. GLOBIS started a part-time MBA program in English in 2009 and a full-time MBA program in English in 2012.

A Harvard MBA graduate and former Sumitomo Corporation employee, Mr. Hori founded the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Japan Chapter in 1995 and became the first board member from Asia in charge of Asia Pacific region in 1996. He also served on the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s New Asian Leaders Executive Committee and Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, as well as the Harvard Business School Alumni Board from 2005 to 2008. Currently, Mr. Hori is a board member of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), and serves as co-chair of WEF’s Global Growth Companies.

In 2008, he launched the G1 Summit – a Japanese version of the WEF’s annual Davos forum. This led to the foundation of G1 Summit Institute in 2013, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

Just days after a huge earthquake struck northeast Japan in March 2011, Mr. Hori launched Project KIBOW to support the rebuilding of the disaster-affected areas. The following year Project KIBOW was incorporated as the KIBOW Foundation, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

An avid enthusiast of the Japanese game Go since age 40, Mr. Hori has been Director of the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) since June 2013.

Since October 2013, Mr. Hori has hosted a weekly TV program in Japan called Nippon Mirai Kaigi (Japan Future Conference). He has authored several books including Visionary Leaders who Create and Innovate Societies, Six Dimensions of Life, and My Personal Mission Statement.

Mr. Hori received his BS in Engineering from Kyoto University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He is an avid swimmer and enjoys spending time with his family, especially his five sons.

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