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Cross-cultural communication: Why you should volunteer abroad

Article by Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo

Posted: August 22, 2022

5 min read


Cross-cultural communication is challenging. Each culture has its own set of rules, and we all carry a collection of cultural biases when we interact with people.

For example, in countries like Japan, Indonesia and Thailand strong emotional reactions like shouting or walking out of the room is frowned upon. Whereas in countries like Italy, France, and the United States it’s more acceptable.

As the need for multinational communication increases, cross-cultural skills are on the rise. The global workforce is rising, with more people working abroad than ever before. This means that the risk of offending someone through a lack of cultural understanding is greater than ever before.


What is cross-cultural communication?


Cross-cultural communication is the process of understanding the differences in how people communicate. From non-verbal gestures to the use of language and even physical space, these all play a part in how well a message is received across different cultures.


Why are cross-cultural communication skills important?


We live in an increasingly globalised world. Since the rise of the internet and air travel, we are no longer only communicating with only people in our cities or countries. As a result, being able to communicate across cultural barriers successfully has become a valuable life skill. Not only can it enrich your experiences when you travel abroad, but it will also improve your employability as businesses with an international reach seek out these skills.



What are the benefits of cross-cultural communication in the workplace?

An employee with strong cross-cultural communication skills can help a business avoid potentially embarrassing situations. For example, when Pepsi launched an ad campaign in China with the slogan “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave” instead of “Pepsi Brings You Back To Life”. 

While this example was funny, a misunderstood message or culturally offensive comment or gesture can damage and potentially ruin relationships with investors, employees and customers.


Here are some of the benefits of a cross-cultural workforce:


Creativity and innovation: Our culture influences the way we interact with the world. By having a variety of viewpoints, teams can gain new perspectives that will give them a competitive advantage.

In a recent study published by Forbes, it found that the best way to ensure continuous development of new ideas is through an inclusive and diverse workplace.

Local market knowledge: When a business expands into a new country, it’s product or service needs to adapt. By having an understanding of local laws, regulations,  and customs as well as native language skills and the cultural nuisances, the business will thrive.

Cultural sensitivity: By learning about another culture, you can help a business avoid any marketing fouls. For example, a print ad featuring a play on local South African words might be considered clever locally, but could be confusing to foreign audiences.

Personal and professional growth: By working across cultures, you can have an enriching experience. It will teach you how to bond over similarities and differences, and help you become a global citizen. It will broaden your horizons, avoid an ethnocentric worldview and leave any prejudices or stereotypes behind.

Your colleagues from other cultures can expose you to new skills and ways to work. You’ll also develop an international network which can take your career in exciting directions.



How volunteering abroad can improve your cross-cultural communication skills


So how do people develop cross-cultural communication skills? One of the best – and most fun – ways is by working with people from different backgrounds.

The only catch is that not all of us are exposed to other cultures before we enter the workplace. One way to develop this skill is through volunteering abroad, which will help you understand the cultural differences in a community. Learning the nuances between your culture and theirs will help you make a genuine impact and improve communication with the project partners on the ground.

For example, people in Nepal tend to be family-focused, relaxed and have a collectivist mindset. While volunteering on community development projects in the country, you’ll need to learn more about these cultural traits as you’ll be living on a base run by a local family. 

By choosing a volunteering project that focuses on cross-cultural communication, you’ll learn:

  • how different cultures approach sensitive topics
  • how to navigate a work environment with people from different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures
  • how to improve your leadership skills by learning what motivates people from different cultures
  • how different cultures approach manners, etiquette, women’s rights and more
  • how to address cultural differences and how to leverage differences to meet your volunteering project’s goal.



How language immersion projects will develop your cross-cultural communication skills


Language and culture are strongly interlinked. By learning another language, you’ll get a glimpse into another culture. It can be as simple as understanding a joke, a cultural reference or using the local slang.

You’ll also develop cross-cultural friendships and deeper connections. When you make friends with someone from a different background, you can learn about each other’s cultures on a much deeper level.

You’ll get introduced to traditional foods or take part in unfamiliar traditions. While some practices might seem strange at first, they will take you outside of your comfort zone and allow you to see what daily life is like for other people around the world.


Learn a new language and travel the world


You can improve your cross-cultural communication – as well as many other – skills by joining one of GVI’s programs. You’ll get to travel to destinations around the world, work on sustainable volunteering projects, learn about the local cultures, and learn how to speak the local language – you might even learn how to cook some of the local dishes.

Speak to someone from our team today.

By Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.
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