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4 Tips for Cross-cultural Communication on Dispersed Scrum Teams

I like to think of myself as a worldly guy. I studied Spanish for eight years, I love to travel, and I enjoy speaking with people of different backgrounds. A couple of months ago, I began work on my first agile project with a dispersed team. Early on, the scrum calls felt like miniature United Nations General Assembly meetings. We would have 5-6 team members on a call, each person from a different country.

Initially, I thought working with people from diverse backgrounds would come easy to me. I should have excelled at this cross-cultural communication. After all, I studied abroad. This was not the case. On our team, we had several delays resulting from simple misunderstandings. I took a step back and developed a couple of strategies to facilitate communication across virtual borders. Hopefully these ideas will enable fuller understanding on your own project.

  1. Speak clearly and slowly, but don’t sound patronizing

Different languages move at different paces. As a southerner, I tend to speak slow, drawn-out English. When I visited South America, the frenetic pace at which they spoke left me unable to process information quickly enough. I frequently asked people to slow their words down so I had a chance to catch up. Keep in mind that members of the scrum team might have to process your words through several filters. Don’t speak too slowly, however. There is a way to speak clearly and directly without sounding like a mother scolding her child.

  1. Avoid colloquialisms and keep it simple

The Spanish I learned in high school and college courses was very academic. I can read a journal article on indigenous insurrections in 18th century Peru, but I still struggle to communicate my needs and desires informally in my second language. On project calls, I found myself using colloquialisms and idiomatic language that does not translate easily.

“I will review this file today” is more easily understood than “I’m fixin’ to sit down and look this file.” You might sound a bit colder, but the point is much clearer. Similarly, tricky verb phrases are often misunderstood. “If I were to have read that email” is a much more complex construction that “I have not read that email.” If you do not understand a statement, ask for elaboration.

  1. Put it down in writing

Spoken language can be difficult to understand. When I speak Spanish aloud, I feel like I am put on the spot. I may agree with someone just to move the conversation along. I cannot spend time analyzing information from two sentences ago if I am actively engaged in a back-and-forth exchange of words. An email or an IM chat will give the reader time to process the information at their preferred pace. There are many times, however, where a simple phone call will be more efficient.

  1. Communicate one-on-one when possible

When you have time to speak one-on-one with a team member, you create a safer space to ask for clarification. Whether it is an IM chat or a phone call, it is much easier for two people to reach an understanding if they do not feel as if they are holding up other team members. Using one-on-one communication also helps to create stronger relationships with team members, ensuring scrum team cohesion in the future.

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