Being Cross-Culturally Skillful – Lessons for us Ethiopians

This blog shares reflections on the importance of being mindful of how we interact across cultures. It invites fellow Ethiopians into some using tactics for communicating more effectively with people from other cultures.



‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting their battle’ – Alexander Pope

Having just come back from a cherished trip to Bale with members of my extended family, I still have the image of my son, his cousins and friends, running around in the beautiful green fields, and exchanging tricks, games and language with some lovely children, dwellers of this Bale Mountain National Park. What excitement there was, during such moments of self-enrichment and learning!

And such moments of elation exist in our workplaces too, when we interact with     people from different parts of the country and world, and realize how much we are learning from such cross-cultural experiences.

Challenges in Cross-Cultural Interactions

Appreciating cross-cultural exchanges, one can’t deny the confusion, frustration,       and maybe even suffering one experiences when communicating with, and working   with people of other cultures. When one is not in sync with the other, there are

misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and perhaps intolerance of how the other works, lives and communicates.

I remember how embarrassed I felt when, years back, in Japan for a youth conference, I warmly hugged in greeting some Japanese colleagues, only finding them freezing on the spot. I found out that culturally, when greeting each other, the Japanese do so more formally, and with less physical contact than Ethiopians.

When speaking to non-Ethiopian friends and colleagues, I often hear their sense of frustration when they fix appointments with us Ethiopians, at times ending up waiting for up to an hour or so, expecting a document to be delivered, only to receive it a few days after the promised date, and sadly seeing relationships end, after the other stops picking up the phone or answering emails.

Beyond feeling embarrassed or frustrated, cross cultural glitches can break deals and negatively affect one’s work.

And so, as we live in a fast-moving world, where we are called to be more efficient, professional, and a global thinker, as Ethiopians, what can we do to get into sync with people of other cultures? How can we preserve and honour certain cultural habits we have, while transforming others at the same time? I’m asking myself how we can live in our culture, while being current and positioning ourselves in a changing world.

I would say that a starting point is by understanding our cultural influences, and that of non-Ethiopians, and getting into sync with them for more fruitful relationships and results.

In this blog, we will focus on an aspect of our cross-cultural communication. I would like to acknowledge the work I have carried out with my colleagues Tong Schraa-Liu, with Veronika Bauer (of TSLP – www.tslpartners.com), Abigael Teklu, and with Dean Foster Associates (www.deanfosterassociates.com), which have inspired the writing of this blog.

This thing called Culture

In my recent reflections, I’m realizing how much culture impacts our behaviour and everything we do. Culture is expressed through the language we use, the food we eat, the architecture of a peoples, how we dress, music, religious rituals at times, literature, the pace of life in a country, the way we work, negotiate, take decisions, how punctual we are, how we communicate, resolve conflicts, and through so many other visible ways.

Explicit culture (what we observe and perceive in a culture) is influenced by group norms and behaviours, which emanate from one’s values and attitude (non-observable aspects of our culture). These, we can see, are shaped by the family upbringing we’ve had, and the environments we live in.

Our values and attitudes inform how we relate with each other, communicate and how we view time. If we focus on the communication aspect, we see how different civilizations in the world asked the vital question: ‘What is the preferred way of communicating with each other?’

How do we Communicate in Ethiopia?

Research carried out by cross-culture specialists reflects the population norm (that is, 60 – 70% of the population) culturally displays a similar way of communicating. What will be shared now, I stress, is not with the intention of generalizing, or placing people in ‘cookie cutters’, claiming all us Ethiopians are this way. This is shared in the spirit of inviting us to understand our culture and patterns of our behavior more. Not all fellow Ethiopians communicate this way.

As a norm, the communication of Ethiopians is ‘High Context’: more indirect, with meaning embedded in both the words but the non-verbal gestures. So in Ethiopia, ‘yes’ can mean \’no\’, which can mean \’maybe\’, depending on the situation. Time may be taken to go to the point, and negotiation processes may take longer.

Such communication may be influenced by the priority given to having harmonious (non-confrontational) relationships and exchanges, and being afraid of offending the other – people may share politeness, rather than being more direct and saying something that may offend the other. Face-to-face and phone conversations may be avoided for the face of avoiding arguments, and thus, preserving harmony.

Other High Context cultures include the Philippines, Rwanda, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, China and Italy.

In contrast to this, people in ‘Low Context’ cultures, or who communicate in a low context style, use words explicitly and specifically to carry the meaning of their communication. In general, countries that display high context communication include Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.

Getting into Sync with Low Context Cultures

So, when one comes across someone who communicates very differently from us, and culturally is different from us, what can we do to make the interaction more fruitful?

Dean Foster’s advice for getting into sync with individuals of who use Low Context communication include:

–  Being more direct in your speech,

–  Avoiding ambiguity,

–  Minimizing non-verbal behaviours,

–  Expecting the words of an individual to mean exactly what they are intended to mean,

–  Not being put-out by emotional outbursts,

–  Being quick, to the point, and doing everything as efficiently as possible,

–  Structuring meetings with timelines and agendas,

–  Realizing that playing hard in negotiation is legitimate, in order to ‘test’ the other side when negotiating.

Holding our Assumptions Lightly

Having shared these tips, the invitation here is to hold our assumptions lightly about others, without placing them in ‘boxes’, saying ‘This is how people of this nationality are’. And from my observations, one of the most powerful ways to connect with people different from myself is to ask myself: ‘What is it in my attitude, personality and behavior that I need to shift/change to have a more fruitful relationship here?’

I assume this is what Confucius was reflecting on, when he commented: ‘If he cannot put himself aright, how can he hope to succeed in putting others aright?’  Indeed, the change needed has to start from the self.

I’m curious, what are your experiences around communicating with people of other cultures? What have you learnt from such experiences?