I have read many documents with recommendations on how to better cope with cultural differences in the workplace. There are some very useful ones, but some that are not that good.
That is why I decided to come up with my own list of tips, let's see what you think of it...
1. Be specific. When you have to explain something or set the rules, make sure you don't take things for granted, there are things that for you are obvious, but not for everyone else. For instance punctuality, in some cultures (like the Mexican) people are expected to show up 30 minutes later than the appointed time. It is also a good idea to check for understanding by having the other person repeat what you said, that way you avoid misunderstandings.
2. Ask a lot of questions. When you get instructions to do something, make sure you ask all the questions you need to make sure you understand what is expected from you. Make sure your questions are open ended so you get more than just a "yes" or "no" answer.
3. Be empathetic. Before judging or critizing someone's emotional reaction or unexpected behavior, try to find out and understand the cultural background and context behind the situation.
4. Show genuine interest. If you start a conversation with another person regarding cultural issues, make sure you do it because you are truly interested in learning about his or her country; if you aren't, it's better to talk about something else. Culture is a very sensitive topic and people can feel offended if they feel you are being condescending.
5. Don't generalize. Even though there are common things to different cultures, treat each person as an individual. I remember meeting a German girl who told me how bad she felt everytime someone asked her questions related to the nazis, Hitler, etc. She felt like everyone thought all Germans were like that.
6. Think twice before using humor. Humor is a very specific cultural trait, make sure you don't use it unless you have a good understanding of the culture you are dealing with. If you do decide to use it, though, make sure you are prepared to apologize if your audience doesn't understand it as intended.
7. Space, body language and tone of voice. Make sure you maintain all these three things neutral. When speaking, don't raise your voice a lot, but make sure people can hear you well. As for body language, don't gesticulate too much and avoid touching people, this also goes for the space between you and the other person, make sure you don't come too close. Something I have learned here in Canada is that people hate the subway because "you get to be too close to other people"...
8. Be ready to apologize. We all make mistakes, and when it comes to cultural differences anything you say or do (unintentionally, of course) can be offensive to someone else. If it happens, don't worry too much about it, but make sure you apologize and explain your intented message.
9. Speak with a simple language. When it comes to communication it is great to be able to speak the other person's language, but as we all know, that is not always possible. We normally switch to English and depending on our level in the language and the other person's, we hope we can understand each other. Make sure you don't use idioms or slang when you speak, keep it simple and clear.
10. Be open and eager to learn. There is so much we can learn from other cultures, so if you have the chance to share the workplace with someone from a different background, take advantage of the situation and learn as much as you can!