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Coffee break Bulletin

How to improve your cross-cultural communication for risk reduction

Posted: Aug. 15, 2017

This Coffee Break Bulletin offers tips for communicating effectively with people of different cultures in order to reach them with fire and life safety messages.

In any culture, there can be a difference between what one knows about a hazard and how they feel about it — such as fear or dread. What is perceived as a risk to one group may not be seen as a risk by another group. And, risks regarding fire and injuries may not be the most pressing issues in individuals’ lives in some cultures.

In addition to concrete skills, such as how to work with an interpreter and how to plan effective outreach in intercultural settings, culturally competent individuals have a number of “soft skills” and perspectives that enable them to work effectively in these situations.

Craig Storti, the author of “Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide,” summarized these in a list.1

Seven lessons to learn about cross-cultural communication

  1. Don’t assume sameness.
  2. What you think of as normal behavior may only be cultural.
  3. Familiar behaviors may have different meanings.
  4. Don’t assume that what you meant is what was understood.
  5. Don’t assume that what you understood is what was meant.
  6. You don’t have to like or accept different behaviors, but you should try to understand where they come from.
  7. Most people do behave rationally, you just have to discover the rationale.

You can reduce mistakes and misunderstandings by becoming more familiar with your own assumptions, beliefs and values and the behaviors that accompany these. Increased awareness of the target audience’s culture also helps.

If you do make a mistake:

  • Ask directly what you did wrong.
  • Apologize if you think that it’s appropriate.
  • Laugh with others if you haven’t done anything too severe.
  • Learn from your mistake.
  • Don’t be discouraged.

Action step for learning more about intercultural communications and risk reduction

Apply for the National Fire Academy course Cultural Competence in Risk Reduction (R0394). This course will provide you with the skills to connect with diverse groups within your community so that you may increase the reach and effectiveness of your fire/life safety prevention programs.

1 Storti, C. (1999). Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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