Cross-cultural Communication in the Age of Digital Meetings

By Quinn Drew posted 10-19-2020 08:02

Back in May of 2019, @Jean Doan wrote a LinkedIn article titled, "'What’s That Supposed to Mean?' Considering the Challenges of Cross-Cultural Communication." Starting with a story about an unintentionally intimidating conversation with a Director at Rotary, she writes about the challenges of cross-cultural communication:  

"In an organization that supports customers, members or volunteers internationally, everyday interactions can become more complex. In face-to-face meetings, on calls, or in webinars, we might tell jokes that no one laughs at, feel offended by the abrupt end to a conversation, or literally not understand an idiom or turn of phrase. How do we stop intercultural differences from interfering with our success at work?"

I recently re-read her piece with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, wondering how much of her "don't panic" advice still applies given our current work-from-home, video-chat-loaded situation. I asked Jean if she'd walk through some of these questions with me, and thankfully, she was into it. 

First, can you tell us a little bit about your role at Rotary?

I’m the Supervisor of Global Events, which, I have to say, sounds more glamourous than it is, haha. In reality it means that I’m a lead on planning a large training event for Rotary called the International Assembly. It’s an in-person training event for about 1,000 people held in Orlando, Florida in either January or February. Granted, this is assuming there's not a pandemic, of course. We are still working out how that will affect our planned event. But pandemic or not, we run the training in six to eight languages, with participants and trainers from around the world. It takes about a year to plan each one, so as soon as we get home from the event, we start getting ready for the next one!

That sounds intense! As you note, it's an in-person training assuming there's not a global pandemic happening. A lot has changed since you published your LinkedIn piece in May of 2019 ---

Drew, let me stop you there. Saying “a lot has changed” is the understatement of the year, #amiright? Our first planning meeting for this event takes place in March of each year, and it typically consists of a global planning team flying to Evanston for a face-to-face, two-day meeting. That meeting is followed by another two-day, face-to-face meeting in May, Between these four full days of meetings, and the staff team working on the details and logistics needed to execute throughout the year, we make almost all the decisions needed to put on the event. This year, no face-to-face planning meetings!

Ok, ok - you’re 100% right. It feels like everything has changed since May 2019. What are your initial thoughts after re-reading your article, 18 months and a world-change later?

Honestly, I can barely remember a time when I sat in a room with my colleagues to discuss projects and brainstorm solutions. I'd love to be experiences the nuances of global communication face to face again!

Oh, for sure. I hear you there. I know it's likely difficult to narrow it down to "one" thing, but I'm going to ask it anyway: what’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced moving your committee meetings from in-person to virtual?

Most basically is time. As learning professionals, we understand the needs of our audience. It is not effective to simply replicate two full days of meetings, which ends up to be about 14 hours, on Zoom. Instead, we’ve had to break those meetings up into almost weekly, shorter meetings (about 2 hours each), which have to be scheduled at times that work for all participants. Sometimes that means its 06:30 for us, and 23:30 for folks in Australia, and these restrictions have a direct impact on how decisions get made.

To overcome this, we’ve just had to adjust our expectations and timelines, and also be really clear when we need a decision and why we need it.

The virtual environment is ripe for distraction and it takes more effort and strategy to stay on task. We’ve also moved a lot of our work “off line” – meaning sending Qualtrics surveys or voting tools to get feedback on a topic rather than having a live discussion or sending everyone a spreadsheet to collect their ideas and then presenting a combined version on an upcoming live call.

We continue to innovate every day!

That takes a TON of communication, I'm sure. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your communication style?

This is something that I’m still figuring out, as I think we all are. I’ve realized how much I rely on the non-verbal communication of others. What body language is communicating meaning? Was that a smile, or a smirk? Does that person seem interested in this idea, or distracted by a noise in their home office?

Virtual communication forces us all to be clearer. To speak what we mean, and to check more frequently for understanding.

In your LinkedIn article, you write, “organizations thrive with global perspectives, and only growth can come from paying a little more attention to how we interact with others.” Do you have any advice on how we can pay more attention when we’re on video or phone calls?

I think this relates to my awareness of my own communication styles. Working with our global colleagues on Zoom CAN be really effective, but our empathy needs to be on high.

If its 11PM where your colleague is, they are likely very tired. They may have worked all day, and this is their 4th zoom call of the evening, it’s important to be sensitive to that.

It’s EASY to interrupt on Zoom, and when it happens, be conscious of the reactions: some cultures its super normal and expected to talk over each other, others can be very offended.

What are you wearing for your zoom? It maybe be bright and early or late at night, but are you matching the expectations of the global group? If the norm is business, put on a blazer.

If the norm is casual, you might want to match it.

It takes more effort to be inclusive and effective in hours and hours of zoom calls, but you can do it. I believe in you.

Let's keep this conversation going in the Connect and Discover Community
  • What communication challenges are you experiencing in our video-heavy conversations and meetings?
  • What related stories do you have to share? Successes? Funny moments? Techniques that have inspired you?
  • How does your team plan events or tackle projects when everyone (or mostly everyone) is working from home?

#communication #learning #eventplanning #globalcommunication

About Jean Doan

Jean’s journey into understanding global communication styles began the first time she was involved in a misunderstanding about “pants” with a Londoner almost 20 years ago. When developing content and planning events for global participants, Jean’s mantra is EMPATHY, EMPATHY, EMPATHY.


When not supervising global events, Jean enjoys writing middle grade time travel fiction, talking about dinosaurs, running slowly, and enjoying craft beers around the dining room table with her wife, Ruth, and wise old cat, Eliot.