UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Counter bias in cross-cultural communications


UNC Kenan-FlaglerElizabeth Dickinson wants us to turn the lens on ourselves.

Dickinson spoke about the importance of analyzing our biases in intercultural communications at UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Cross-Cultural Savvy for Global Business certificate program offered by the Global Business Center. The two-day program, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, brought business professionals, academics and students together with seven intercultural communication experts to develop skills for global business.

Dickinson is a UNC Kenan-Flagler management and corporate communication professor who researches intercultural communication issues. She said information often gets lost or distorted in conversations for a variety of reasons: information overload, the use of a single channel, a complex message or a lack of repetition, among others.

In the workplace, people typically ignore, forget or distort about 75 percent of what they hear, she said.

But people aren’t just bad listeners. Ingrained perceptions, identities and biases based on culture have a large impact on how people listen, especially cross-culturally, she said.

“In business, based on cultural beliefs, assumptions and privileges, we misperceive and stereotype messages, information, coworkers and customers,” Dickinson said.

People are often hesitant to openly acknowledge or talk about their own privileges or identities in work contexts. The question of power is particularly difficult to discuss, she said.

“You put yourself in a vulnerable position by having those conversations,” Dickinson said. “You can make some people feel like they didn’t earn it and are being asked to give up their power.”

This can be especially true in international contexts, where people can have different views on ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, race and more, making communications even trickier to navigate.

“We end up performing our culture on a micro-level with everyone we meet,” Dickinson said. ”When we take it to an international level, it sort of explodes.”

These biases can be countered, Dickinson said, by openly acknowledging the concept of identity and privilege in interactions. Business professionals can work toward achieving cross-cultural listening with the following steps:

  • Acknowledge and control external and internal noises and thoughts.
  • Identify important information in the conversation.
  • Identify your reactions to pieces of information.
  • Separate information from reaction. Ask yourself “what if it’s true?” and explore that road.
  • Critique your reaction.
  • Seek a better understanding. Ask clarifying questions, empathize and suspend judgment.
  • Move toward dialectical thinking, holding contradictory beliefs at the same time.

The ultimate goal is for the listener to be self-reflexive about their identities and cultural competence.

The program is supported by a Center for International Business Education & Research (CIBER) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.