When meeting a person from a culture different than your own it might feel like you have hit a solid wall and that there is no way you will be able to connect.
However, there are many ways to deal with the cultural barrier – ways that can help you overcome the barrier with just a minor effort.
First and foremost it is important to learn about the foreign culture. Everybody is formed by the history of their society, the level of development and wealth, travel habits, popular culture and religious tradition. Study those things and try to emphasise with those conditions. How would you think and feel if it was you who had grown up in that society? Riding a bike to work is normal and in fashion in Western Europe but a sign of being poor in China.
You need to forget about your “normal”. When interacting cross-culture there is no normal and failing to realise this can become a big obstacle to efficient communication. The same goes for the popular references you use in your home setting. The person you meet from a different culture might not have heard about your celebrities, movies and stars in sports. The English word ‘football’ refers to two different things in the U.S. and the UK.
Miscommunication is a great danger in all meetings and especially if you cross a cultural border. Humor and irony are danger zones and can easily be lost already in language differences. Body language is interpreted differently and the need for personal space varies greatly.
When you initiate a conversation with the foreigner you just met it is advised to be very polite and to listen actively. Show respect and remember that most people have pride. Mention positive things you have learned about the country your new contact is from. Famous people from culture and sport are good topics; politics and religion are danger zones. Most people from any country lack affection for domestic politicians but might nevertheless feel obliged to stand up for their country when meeting an outsider. Eventually you will find some common ground and then you have something you can continue working on. After all most people have certain ideas and feelings in common, you just need to find your way there.
When it comes to language it is always advised to speak clear, a bit slow and avoid using difficult words and slang. Raising your voice to be better understood doesn’t do it. Also keep in mind that the person you meet might be translating words to understand and in her native language things might mean totally different things than in your language. Swedes usually don’t consider anything “fantastic” when Americans use “fantastic” all the time. When a Brit says “really” that most often mean she disagrees. When a Spaniard means “no” it takes a few sentences and many smiles but a Ukrainian will say “no” and that’s it. Finding the right tone in a multicultural conversation is a challenge; proceed with caution.
Experience and practice is one key to success in intercultural exchanges. Learning about society and culture is another. Actively encouraging your new contact to speak can produce progress if the person is from a culture where interrupting somebody is seen as utterly rude. The same goes if you are the older or senior person and you are speaking with somebody drilled from childhood to respect authority above everything else.
For a Westerner it might also be hard to understand that some topics are sensitive to the point of being outright dangerous for the other party. Even discussing certain authors or countries might go against the views of an oppressive regime and cause harm to anybody who talks about them. Never moralise and never be arrogant, most likely you have no idea what the other person think and feel about the topic, what the other person have done to change things in her country to the better, what risks the other person might take just by talking with a foreigner.
If you are interacting with foreigners as part of your job it can be good to recap the essence of a conversation from time to time to ensure everybody is following. Some people feel they lose face if they ask you to repeat if they don’t understand you. Following up on agreements and even scheduled meetings is also advised just to make sure you share the common goal. Putting things in writing together can be a good idea.
Finally, when you start understanding things – or think you do – it might be tempting to mimic local styles and language and even to use slang. Don’t do it. In most countries you will remain a foreigner forever and if you are not a master of the foreign language you might never be able to get the nuances right all the time. Use your status as a foreigner to your advantage instead, many people find it a nice spice to their daily life to associate with foreigners and will be happy to have you around just because of that.