The United States is home to people from many different countries. It is a rich and varied home composed of various cultural, linguistic, and political backgrounds. From a health communicator’s point of view, it is crucial to keep these backgrounds in mind, as they affect how people make decisions about their health and how they participate in the health care system.
Although we may think of the United States as an English-speaking country, communications about health necessarily take place in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Gujarati, Cambodian, and many other languages. In addition to language considerations, people bring with them their experiences with different health care systems and may lack essential pieces of information when it comes to their health standing.
Communicating in plain language is hard enough when people share background and language. Imagine how hard it is when two people don’t share a cultural reference and cannot speak the same language.
Here are some tips for health communicators to keep in mind:
Ask in a respectful way
We often communicate by asking questions. Sometimes, however, questioning is perceived as a push back or disrespect, especially when it comes to professional relationships between physicians and their patients. But questions save lives. So, keep at it, but only ask one question at a time. Avoid posing double questions such as, “Do you want to carry on or should we stop here?” Your listener may only comprehend one question at a time due to a language barrier.
Because questions may not be welcome among some cultures, be cognizant of your tone and monitor your audience’s behavior. Is the person you are talking to relaxed? Are you asking your questions using the proper tone of voice? Should you change anything to make them feel more welcome? The goal of health communications is to educate and empower a person to make informed decisions, and that goal can only be achieved if you ask in a proper manner so that ultimately you can supply an appropriate response.
When talking about health, we cannot make decisions based on assumptions. A quick pause to double check that the communication is on the right track can have a huge impact on the health outcome.
Although double checking is essential, also be aware of the actual words you are using. Be clear about what you mean, as some idiomatic phrases do not have equivalents in other languages. For example, a statement like “Before you make a decision, talk to your family. Having another set of ears could be helpful.” Many languages do not make the connection that a “set of ears” means another person. The statement may confuse your listener. The same is true for puns and word play. It is also good to avoid using words with multiple meanings.
Listen up and step back
Listening is key in intercultural exchanges. Listening well involves filtering out distractions, focusing your attention on what another person is saying, making sure you truly understand the message, interpreting the message, and responding aptly.
As the United States continues to attract people from all over the world, our ability to communicate effectively about health will be challenged as more nuances of backgrounds will come into play. But this challenge is an amazing opportunity to improve communications in the health field. Use the tips above to delve into meaningful encounters with your audience and know that you can indeed communicate effectively in this quickly changing health care landscape.
Martina Sestakova is the Global Content Strategist at MMG, a health care communications firm in Rockville, MD. Martina has a B.A. in communication from the University of Maryland. She has more than 7 years of experience in intercultural communications and implements her expertise in the creation of patient recruitment/retention materials for multinational clinical trials. In her free time, Martina is passionate about fashion design and chronicles her adventures at www.radostbymartinasestakova.com.