Checkr chats with author and journalist Jessica Stone on the importance of cross-cultural communication and DEI.
Jessica Stone is a 20-year veteran of international journalism. Her recent book, Crossing the Divide: 20 Lessons to Help You Thrive in Cross-Cultural Environments, outlines key learnings in cross-cultural communication, each accompanied by real-life case studies from her intrepid career. It’s a career that saw her work in China, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Haiti, and beyond.
She began writing the book during the pandemic, after leaving her job covering the U.S. for a global audience as the White House Correspondent for CGTN. Despite sharing an office with colleagues from Iran, Israel, China, Latin America, and Europe, Jessica says she and her colleagues never received training on how to navigate their cultural differences. Miscommunications, cultural blunders, and confusion ensued.
Raising her own two children, Jessica wanted to share the lessons she had learned in a cross-cultural work environment to help the next generation to develop cross-cultural competency—and ultimately empower them to avoid the mistakes she made over the course of her international career.
The book has since evolved into an online course curriculum for students in high school and college to help them develop the skills necessary to thrive in diverse workplaces. Jessica also speaks at colleges, universities, and conferences across the U.S..
We sat down with Jessica to get her insight on the role of cross-cultural communication in DEI.
Let’s dive in!
Hi Jessica! Why is cross-cultural communication critical to a successful DEI program?
Jessica Stone: The Institute for the Future of Work ran a recent study on the top 10 skills employers want their employees to have in the workplace. Cross-cultural competency is in the top 10. You don't have to be a foreign service officer to need this skill set. Educators, tech-based workers, salespeople and others all need cross-cultural communication skills to succeed.
Not only is it a critical skill for individuals to be effective at work, but cultivating the skill is key to advancing DEI initiatives. Companies recognize DEI as an important asset, but they aren't necessarily making the connection between a strong DEI program and the need for upskilling cross-cultural communication.
In order to maintain a successful DEI program, you not only need a focus on knowledge around race and religion, you need understanding around culture as well. You always have to be upskilling and learning about the other cultural contexts that shape your colleagues and staff. That's why it’s important to have this conversation in the context of DEI.
Culture often dictates interpersonal communication styles and preferences. In your book, you talk about how you had to adapt your natural communication style to effectively communicate with colleagues from other cultures.
Jessica Stone: It’s helpful to understand that you are not being disloyal to your culture or to your goals if you adapt your communication to reach a successful outcome. If you want to be successful, you need to find the road that's most effective.
You also can't push people out of their comfort zone. I, as an American journalist, was always trained to get past a no, to get to that yes. I was trained to dig in and find answers. Many people in sales and communications are trained not to take no for an answer as well.
Not all cultures respond well to that persistent demand for a definitive answer. For example, some cultures are conflict-averse and shy away from giving an outright no for an answer.
If you're trying to sell to somebody who doesn't ever say the word “no,” who just ghosts you, says “maybe” but then never puts the pieces together to make it happen—that really is a “no!” You have to read into more than the language.
"I encourage managers and leaders in multicultural contexts to practice studying ahead, doing personal cultural self-reflection as well as researching the cultural context of your colleagues and clients."
If you’re working in a global office, you have to understand the cultures that shape your colleagues, as well as the contexts they’re familiar with. On the flip side, you need to reflect on and understand your own intuitive management and communication style. Taking stock of these influences and styles helps you to understand the different ways you will have to engage with different individuals based on their cultural context—and how it compares to your own.
There will be things in interpersonal relations that irk you; situations where you're reading somebody and think, "I'm not sure they're understanding what I'm presenting." There’s differences in appropriate levels of eye contact, differences in time management and the strictness of deadlines, differences in tone and voice.
I encourage managers and leaders in multicultural contexts to practice studying ahead, doing personal cultural self-reflection as well as researching the cultural context of your colleagues and clients. And I have to warn you. This is hard work. This is exhausting work. You cannot rely on your intuition. You cannot wing it. It can feel uncomfortable.
Developing effective cross-cultural communication is a lifelong journey of learning. In our increasingly globalized world and economy, these skills will continue to be important to do effective work. We really don't have a choice anymore.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that upskilling on cross-cultural communication can help you communicate effectively with not just your international colleagues, but also your fellow Americans. The beauty of America is that we are a melting pot. We are a collection of diverse individuals. But we have to get better at reminding people that our differences are our strength, and we have to leverage them as such.
What are DEI programs missing from a cross-cultural communication lens?
Jessica Stone: Let’s start with how we typically quantify diversity. It’s important to realize that diversity is not limited to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. It is also ideological, an aspect that’s not always included under the DEI umbrella.
Furthermore, the DEI construct is often portrayed as progress versus regression or forward versus backward. But diversity isn’t linear; it spans a wide spectrum of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives.
"Developing effective cross-cultural communication is a lifelong journey of learning. In our increasingly globalized world and economy, these skills will continue to be important to do effective work. We really don't have a choice anymore."
From an ideological lens, many employees are part of cultures with strong views on the most polarizing conversations happening in this country—and frankly, around the world. We need to be sensitive to that. People are going to have a background and a comfort, or a discomfort, with talking about some of these things.
When we recognize the breadth and depth of diversity and cultural identity, we can open the conversation to how best to support and celebrate each other with respect, ultimately leading to stronger business outcomes.
Why do businesses need to invest in cross-cultural communication training and upskilling? What are the benefits for an organization?
Jessica Stone: Productivity and innovation. You want diversity for innovation, but you can't get to the innovation until you have the communication. You can't get to the communication until you have a cross-cultural sensibility about how to best accomplish that.
We know that people are more productive when they feel like they're collaborating and they feel like they're welcome and valued.
"Diversity isn’t linear; it spans a wide spectrum of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives."
It's fraught, though, because it's challenging to manage. How are you going to, as a company, create a culture where people feel safe to have these conversations? Where they are in fact safe to do that? If someone is vulnerable, will they be judged; will they regret it?
If you want to improve, you need to be able to build a safe enough space for people to say, “I don’t know the answer, and I want to learn.” It’s a difficult environment to create, but it's a necessary one for cross-cultural communication to thrive.
In your book, you talk about the importance of curiosity, grace, and humility in cross-cultural competency. What can employers do to integrate these values into their DEI programs?
Jessica Stone: I urge employers to expand their definitions of DEI to include culture and to create an ethos where curiosity is welcome. In the absence of curiosity, many things don’t succeed across multiple levels. For example, if you're shutting people down for asking a question—they’re no longer going to ask questions. Who benefits from that?
"You want diversity for innovation, but you can't get to the innovation until you have the communication. You can't get to the communication until you have a cross-cultural sensibility about how to best accomplish that."
Recognize that people can change. I have certainly changed. My cross-cultural communication skills have evolved and advanced throughout my career. You do the best you can at the time, and you don't always make the right decision. However, it’s key to create an atmosphere of grace. That doesn't mean you can’t demand respect, and it doesn’t mean your employees don’t have to meet their deadlines—but it opens up the opportunity for your staff and colleagues to finally ask the hard questions of one another and offers a space to have the conversations that take a company’s DEI competency to the next level.
On the employee side, working for people that have grace is a tremendous loyalty-builder. Without grace, humility and curiosity—DEI can remain just a box to check. That doesn’t help your employees develop stronger collaboration, and it eliminates the benefits of diversity and innovation for the company.
How do you see the DEI movement improving in the next few years?
Jessica Stone: I see the DEI movement moving away from quotas and toward collaboration and creating opportunities for understanding. Though, I still think we have a long way to go.
In corporate DEI programs, it's common to create resource groups where underrepresented people can join, get together to celebrate their culture and identity, and look to each other for support. These are wonderful initiatives—but where in your company are you creating space to bring those groups together?
Are you setting goals and team building, where employees have to accomplish things and work across cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious lines? Are you emphasizing your goals with enough specificity and consistency, so that your employee resource groups know that there is a commonality? If they can find no other common ground between them, they should be able to find the goals of your company as common ground; what you want to produce, how you want to produce it, how you want to sell it, how you want to market it, and where it's going to be sold.
"I urge employers to expand their definitions of DEI to include culture and to create an ethos where curiosity is welcome."
As professionals, we need to contend with the fact that DEI does not begin and end with quotas and employee resource groups. The more diverse your company is, yes, you are going to be blessed by more diverse and innovative thought. But you, as a manager, really need to keep up to date on how different employees across various identities communicate with each other and create opportunities for connection.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight, Jessica!
Jessica’s book, Crossing the Divide: 20 Lessons to Help You Thrive in Cross-Cultural Environments, is available wherever books are sold. To learn more about Jessica, find more information on her website and on LinkedIn.