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International careers: top tips for improving your communication skills

As the world becomes more connected than ever before, individuals and groups across the globe find themselves working together at a much greater pace.

International careers: top tips for improving your communication skills
Photo: Getty Images

While the ability to communicate in international workplaces, be they real or online, can help drive innovation and creativity, these working environments also come with their own unique set of challenges – miscommunication among the biggest.

Together with online learning provider GetSmarter, we speak with tutors from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership to provide some of the essential dos and don’ts to help you save time and money when working with a group of people across a number of cultures.

Do you want to communicate your ideas clearly across cultural divides? Enrol for the Cambridge University & GetSmarter ‘Communicating for Influence and Impact’ course.

DO understand that your ‘normal’ will be different to others

Depending on where you are from, you will have very specific expectations about how a meeting should progress, or the role of ‘small talk’ – and these are guaranteed to be different to those of the people you will encounter. Those from northern European countries may place a greater emphasis on punctuality, whereas in parts of South America, building a rapport is more important, for example. 

Betsy Reed, Head Tutor of the Communicating for Influence and Impact course, tells us: “From my perspective, as someone who’s lived in five countries and worked on four continents, DO assume that your norms are not everyone’s – and never forget that. Do your homework and learn what cultures others in the room come from and what that might mean for their approach and expectations.

“Do think carefully about the role of ‘chat’ and informal conversation at the beginning of meetings – some cultures find it rude if you are seen to be ‘wasting time’ with talk about the weather etc, whereas other cultures think the opposite and like to invest in some small talk to build rapport,” says fellow Communicating for Influence and Impact tutor Chantal Treagar. 

It’s important to allow time and devote resources to understanding these key differences, and allowing for them in discussions, thereby eliminating possible misunderstandings later on. 

DON’T use slang or colloquialisms 

Wherever people live, they develop their own slang and specific spin on language – it adds colour and nuance to discussion. However, that nuance can be lost, or worse, misunderstood when working with a diverse group of internationals who simply don’t have the same understanding of the language. 

As Treagar states: “Don’t use jargon of any sort and definitely not colloquialisms, idioms and phrases that might cause confusion as well as risk not ensuring an inclusive culture, for example, phrases such as ‘right off the bat’; ‘throw a googly’, or ‘chuffed’. Do think carefully about the use of humour.”

“For anyone working in a culture they’re not from, simply remembering that your norms and ways of communicating are foreign to others can go a long way. Ensure clarity simply by asking if others understand what you’re asking for,” offers Reed. 

DO keep an eye on the time 

One thing that many people who work in international environments begin to understand is that some cultures have significantly different attitudes towards time management and punctuality than others. One person’s firm appointment might be considered an advisory to others. 

This can be avoided by respecting each other’s time and ensuring that you keep to a schedule. 

“Do always start meetings on time and finish them on time – some cultures are relaxed about starting a meeting on the hour or two minutes after, whereas others prefer to be on the call or in the meeting room a minute or two before the appointed time so that it starts exactly on time,” notes Treagar. 

Reed says it’s important not to make people feel as if every task needs to be actioned straight away. She states: “Do respect people’s personal time – if you send a stream of emails at 10pm because that is when you happen to have time, make sure to put in the subject box ‘for action tomorrow please’ or ‘not for now but for our meeting tomorrow’ or add a first line in the text that makes it clear you are not expecting a response or work to be done between 10pm and 9am the next day. Old-fashioned values such as respect and courtesy still go a long way.”

Want to understand the common pitfalls of communicating in international workplaces? Enrol in the Cambridge University & GetSmarter ‘Communicating for Influence and Impact’ course.


Pic: Getty

DON’T beat yourself up if you get it wrong

Finally, it’s essential not to give up when working with a diverse group of co-workers. Everyone experiences cultural misunderstandings, and they’re an important part of learning how to work with others from around the globe. 

As Reed states: “Assume there will be different cultural understandings, expectations and norms around things like making a point, asking for things, saying no to requests from those with more power, the importance of individual achievement and opinion versus collaboration and group effort. 

“Be humble and be kind to yourself. Consider yourself a student and be assured that you will sometimes fail to communicate clearly, or others will, and continue improving your understanding and cross-cultural communication skills. It’s called a skill for a reason!” 

Treagar supports this, telling us: “Cultural misunderstandings can be quite common – mostly out of ignorance and no ill intent. Open communication helps and a quick apology can assist if you quickly assess that something hasn’t landed well and you misread the situation, or the use of language. Ultimately, improved communication will influence productivity and help towards a greater sense of personal fulfilment and sense of achievement.”

Develop your communication skills for the global workplace 

“Entire books have been written and Internet memes circulated on failures of cross-cultural communication,” says Reed. “As someone who lives in a culture and language that are not my native ones, every day is a masterclass in remembering to listen, to observe and to learn new ways of communicating effectively.”

However, there are steps you can take to develop a better understanding of cultural differences in communication, and ensure that you can communicate clearly and concisely with colleagues from around the globe, no matter where they’re from. 

The Communicating for Influence and Impact online short course from GetSmarter equips international workers with all the skills and knowledge they need to avoid cross-cultural communication misunderstandings, and unite teams to work towards greater success and impact. The course is part-time, online and presented in plain English, so you can be sure that you can easily access it and fit it around your schedule. 

Do you want to become a thought leader who is able to communicate across cultures and audiences? Enrol in the Cambridge University & GetSmarter ‘Communicating for Influence & Impact’ course

Member comments

  1. Also don’t mix metaphors. One throws a curveball, but bowls a googly (the difference being whether or not one’s arm is bent).

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EDUCATION

What financial aid are foreign students entitled to in Switzerland?

The academic year in Swiss universities started on September 19th, with thousands of foreign students enrolled in many of the country’s higher education institutions. but are they entitled to any financial help whilst in the country?

What financial aid are foreign students entitled to in Switzerland?

Switzerland has 10 public universities — in Basel, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Lausanne, Lucerne, Lugano,  St. Gallen, and Zurich — as well as two institutes of technology located in Lausanne and Zurich.

Besides their field of orientation, the difference between “regular” universities and the polytechnics is that the former are cantonal institutions while the latter two are federal — both in terms of administration and funding.

In addition, there is a number of specialised universities  of applied sciences, as well as teacher training colleges.

A significant number of Swiss universities are highly ranked, with some, like Zurich’s polytechnic institute (ETH), positioned among the top schools worldwide and in the first place in continental Europe.

Because of their reputation for high-quality education, scores of international students apply to one of these schools each year, according to the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

At the start of the 2020 academic year (the last data available), nearly 12,300 new international students enrolled in Swiss universities — 4 percent more than in the previous year — despite the Covid pandemic and travel restrictions.   

EXPLAINED: How can foreigners get into a Swiss university?

As the article linked above explains, “overall, the cost of studying in Switzerland is much lower than at top universities in the UK or the United States, but foreign students pay a significantly higher tuition than locals”.

The reason is that Swiss universities are public, which means they are partly supported by tax revenue, so people who don’t reside in Switzerland have to shell out more money to study here.

As a general indication, in 2021,  foreign Bachelor students at the University of St. Gallen had to pay a semester fee which is 2.5 times higher than that of Swiss residents — 3,129 francs compared to 1,229 francs.

In the Masters program, the ratio was 2.3 (3,329 francs against 1,429 francs).

At the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano, the most expensive in the country, foreign students paid double, or 4,000 francs.

READ MORE : How much universities in Switzerland charge foreigners compared to locals

But that’s not all : Apart from the tuition and additional fees for study-associated materials, you will have to pay rent for housing where you will live, as well as for meals, public transport, the obligatory health insurance policy, and whatever other miscellaneous costs you may incur.

Speaking of health policy, whether or not you need to buy one in Switzerland depends on where you came from and what kind of plan you have in your home country:

Do foreign students in Switzerland need to get a Swiss health insurance policy?

Are foreign students entitled to Swiss financial aid?

The expectation is that anyone from abroad should support themselves financially while studying in Switzerland.

But that is often not the case.

In such situations, international students can get some financial assistance from  the Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students (FCS).

The list of those eligible to apply is, however, limited to some postgraduate candidates and researchers from certain countries.

To check whether your nation is eligible for the programme, you can contact the Swiss Embassy or consulate in your home country.

Individual universities also offer some assistance.

University of Geneva, for instance, offers a stipend, designed especially for students who cannot benefit from the cantonal scholarship, including foreigners.

This site explains who is entitled to such assistance and how to apply.

As for ETH in Zurich, it offers some funds for both Bachelor and Masters-level students from abroad.

The conditions are outlined in this PDF document.

The situation is similar at ETH’s sister institution, the Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne (EPFL), which offers help for foreign students who fulfill certain criteria.

Most other Swiss universities also have some sort of programmes to help foreign students financially, although none will offer enough money to help finance studies 100 percent.

 It is best to contact your university directly to find out what, if any, financial aid is available to foreign students, and under what conditions.
 

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