Intercultural Communication Skills
“In some ways, all people are like all other people; in some ways, like some other people; and in some ways, like no one else.”
COMMUNICATION AT WORK
A group of French students, newly arrived in India on an exchange programme at Bajaj Institute of Management (BIM), Pune, faced some communication problems that they described:
“First of all, the difference in accents between French and Indian people is important. That is why it is sometimes hard for us to understand each other. We took time to adapt to this new accent, and it was sometimes difficult to be understood by Indians, who are unfamiliar with our French accent.
At the beginning, we often had to ask people to repeat themselves two or three times. Eventually, this would become embarrassing, so we would just say ‘okay’, even if we didn't understand that they had said. Likewise, in restaurants, it happened that after ordering a specific dish, we would get a different one because of pronunciation problems with the waiter.
To adapt, we quickly understood that it was better for us to speak in English without British or American accents that we learned at school. Indeed, it was better to adapt our accent to the Indian pronunciation, especially with the letter r. Moreover, we use very simple English and easy sentences such as ‘You, okay?’ instead of ‘Do you agree with that?'to be correctly understood.
We, every day, face the difficulties generated by the difference in accents, but the major issue is communicating with non-English-speaking people. Not everyone in India speaks English and, unfortunately, we do not speak Hindi. We have faced many situations where it was difficult to be clear and to converse with the other side. For instance, when we want to bargain with rickshaws, it takes a long time and we often have to show numbers with our hands or by writing them on the floor or typing them on our mobile phones.”
Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:
Understand the increasing need for clear and cordial communication with people from different cultures.
Understand how cultural context affects personal behaviour and business communication.
Know the main characteristics of low-context and high-context cultures.
Learn how to communicate across cultures with different concepts of formal and social behaviour, time, and space.
Understand e-mail etiquette for intercultural business communication.
With increasing globalization, interaction between people from different societies and cultures has become unavoidable. More than just travelling as tourists, people now stay in foreign countries for business, higher studies, and employment. The new trend in international business is to “go local”. This creates a work situation in which “locals” and foreign experts perform together as a team. This necessitates cultural orientation on the part of the visitors so that they are familiar with the host culture, specially the use of habitual expressions and expected behaviour in different situations. The process of acculturation is made possible by organizing specialized training of visiting teams in the language and work culture of host organizations. It is also necessary for those in the host country to be respectful and welcoming of their visitors’ cultures, so that the interaction can be productive and cordial.
A prerequisite to setting up a business in a foreign land is being able to maintain cordial relations with the local people. One of the important ways to achieve this is to speak the language of the foreign land. For example, the representatives of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Latin America converse in Spanish and Portuguese. Similarly, the executives of Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) working in China undergo training in Chinese language, culture, and social customs in addition to picking up Chinese business etiquette in the course of their stay in China. Likewise, the local Chinese employees of M&M are given training in English so that they can follow and implement the company’s new business processes.
Understand the increasing need for clear and cordial communication with people from different cultures.
Smooth cross-cultural presence in business, industry, or education is possible internationally or intra-nationally only by first developing knowledge and sensitivity of the other culture. Indian corporations seeking to establish businesses in foreign countries such as China, South Africa, Malaysia, Korea, and so on are preparing themselves by teaching executives foreign languages. This can facilitate easy intermingling with the people in these countries and help develop cultural sensitivity. According to a report published in The Economic Times, cultural sensitivity is increasingly becoming India Inc.’s “most important deal drill.”1 This is discussed in more detail later in the chapter.
The new trend in international business is to “go local”.
Exhibit 3.1 provides an insight into some of the transformations the English language may undergo in an increasingly global world.
According to Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost experts and author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, English will fragment into “global dialects”, forcing speakers routinely to learn two varieties of the language—one spoken in their home country and a new kind of Standard English. The latter kind of English will have pronounced Indian characteristics, says Professor Crystal.
The new Standard English could signify the end of the primacy of American English. “Future users of global Standard English might routinely say, ‘I am thinking it is going to rain’ rather than the British/American ‘I think it is going to rain’”, says Crystal. Because Indians tend to use the"present continuous"—I am thinking, I am feeling, I am seeing—where the British/ Americans would use the “present simple"—I think, I feel, I see—the present continuous form may become part of global Standard English. A second factor in this change in the nature of English could be the fact that India has a bigger English-speaking population than the rest of the native English-speaking world. It will be interesting to see the form English takes if the new Standard English gains popularity.
Source: Based on Rashmee Roshan Lall, “Indian English Will Conquer Globe: Expert”, The Times of India, New Delhi, March 7, 2008.
To manage the cultural diversity they encountered in other countries, Indian multinational companies such as Tata, HCL, and M&M decided to go local in a big way. Consider the example of Tata Motor’s Daewoo enterprise in Korea, wherein Koreans are employed to do most of the work and the small number of Indians who work with them speak Korean. Likewise, TCS in Latin America has in place a senior management team consisting mostly of locals, while a few Indians provide the support system. Bilt also believes in the “go local” mantra of globalization. Its decision to acquire Sabah Forest, Malaysia’s largest paper and pulp company, without displacing people from their present jobs in the company is inspired by this philosophy.
The practice of absorbing locals into the workforce is ethically sound. It creates a cordial relationship between the hosts and the foreign employer and employees. But the visiting organization faces a number of challenges. For instance, consider the experience of SBI in China. T.C.A. Ranganathan had a great deal of experience managing bank branches across North India. But in Shanghai, he realized that he still needed to learn certain things about managing bank branches. Understanding and handling the Chinese staff was one of the major challenges. Another difficulty was codifying the local law in a manner that could be understood back in India. There was also the issue of building a brand for a bank that few in China had heard of.2
Executives seeking global business shores often join formal classes to get a feel for local cultures. Sensitivity to local cultures is necessary to stay in business. For instance, dinner diplomacy in China is often more effective than boardroom meetings for securing business. Those who understand this, like M&M, often manage to clinch deals over less-sensitive rivals.
Understand how cultural context affects personal behaviour and business communication.
Awareness about a client’s cultural sensitivities often results in a positive advantage in business relationships. The phrase “cultural sensitivity” was first used in the Harvard Business Review in 2004, in the context of the cultural intelligence quotient (CQ). Shital Kakker Mehra, founder of Soft Skills International, defines cultural sensitivity as “an ability to interpret unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures in the way compatriots of the same culture would.” Here, the term gestures stands for the whole range of non-verbal cues that accompany verbal communication between persons from two different cultures. In interpreting gestures, one can consider the human body to be part of the code for communication of symbolic messages that reveal an individual’s thoughts and feelings. Gestures are often expressive of cultural context.
Here, it is important to understand that culture is not just behaviour. Culture is the received and accepted set of rules guiding human behaviour. These rules are absorbed and eventually become engrained in each individual’s mind to the point where they are second nature. Persons with similar sets of social rules tend to behave in the same manner, which then becomes the normal behaviour expected in different situations. It is interesting to know that an individual’s behaviour is noticed only when it deviates from the norm and becomes a noticeable behaviour in a particular culture. Thus, cultural sensitivity, which is measured by the cultural intelligence quotient, helps us to understand cultural differences. It enables us to interpret different gestures according to the rules of normal behaviour in that culture.
For example, here is a scenario illustrative of significant differences between cultures: a man travelling alone in a cab in New York will sit in the back seat, but in Australia, if a man is travelling alone in a cab, he will occupy the front seat next to the driver. According to Beatty and Takahashi, most New York cab drivers hold that if a single male attempted to get in the front seat, next to them, they would get out of the cab. For them, such an act would likely mean that the entering passenger is a thief. Australian cab drivers, on the other hand, feel that a man getting in the back seat alone is rather unfriendly and distant.3
Cultural sensitivity is considered to be very important in helping a person adapt to a foreign culture. This is why most nations include questions about their culture in their citizenship tests, assuming that a person who is aware about their culture will be able to adapt to it successfully. Exhibit 3.2 shows a few sample questions that a person may be required to answer as part of a U.K. citizenship test.
Several nations ask immigrants to take citizenship tests that examine their knowledge of the culture they hope to live in. Below is a sample citizenship test for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom has a vibrant popular culture. Which of the following is not a British musical group?
So Solid Crew
Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state, celebrates an “official birthday”, the date of which changes every year. What is her actual birthday?
You have a bought a kettle from a High Street electrical retailer. Under what circumstances can you demand your money back?
You changed your mind; you don't want it anymore.
It keeps switching off before the water boils.
You discover that a friend has already bought one for you.
All of the above.
The United Kingdom has a devolved government, which means there are special groups of elected officials who currently meet in both Edinburgh and Cardiff. Who is the first minister of the Welsh Assembly?
Under working time regulations, after six hours of work, you are entitled to a break of how long?
People’s behaviour at meetings and social gatherings is nearly a ritualized act in various cultures. At a formal meeting between two persons or groups from different cultural backgrounds, people might behave according to their own culture. For example, in English one may say “Pleased to meet you” or “How do you do?”, whereas in Japanese one says “Hajimemashite” (it is beginning). Differences in cultures are seen in the way people from different cultures behave on meeting someone for the first time. Japanese executives first exchange business cards instead of verbally introducing themselves. The card is handed over to the receptionist, without an introduction. The purpose of giving or showing the card is to announce the visitor’s arrival for the appointed meeting. No verbal exchange takes place because the Japanese believe that verbal exchange should be for prolonged interactions. The exchange of visiting cards involves no time as such. American businesspeople find this practice rather surprising. Americans and Europeans usually approach the receptionist and verbally announce, “I am so and so” and “I have come to meet so and so”. On meeting the person concerned, they would greet them with a “Good morning/afternoon/evening” and “how are you doing?”, which is followed by an introduction
Differences in cultures are seen in the way people from different cultures behave on meeting someone for the first time.
Cultural differences are also noticeable in the way people in groups act when they are joined by a new person. In America, when a group of persons is talking and someone joins the group, the group drops the ongoing discussion as it is believed that the newcomer would have little interest in it or would fail to join in the discussion. In this matter, the Japanese follow the practice of continuing with the ongoing discussion and wait for the moment when the newcomer is able to join the conversation. Of course, if the newcomer has high status, the group drops the discussion to pay attention to the newly arrived person. Thus, one could say that “Americans regroup, whereas Japanese join an existing group.”
Visiting is a formal act. Calling out the name of the host of a house is usually considered improper in most cultures. Ringing the door bell or knocking on the door is the normal practice. On entering a house, Japanese people (and those from some other Asian cultures) generally remove their shoes. People of western cultures do not normally do so.
Different cultures have different ways in which people address each other. For example, in the United States, children address their parents or uncles/aunts by their relationship to them, such as “Mom”, “Dad”, “Uncle”, “Aunt”, and so on. Siblings or cousins use first names to address each other. Moreover, older adults who are not immediate family members are generally addressed by their first names, regardless of how old they may be. In some cultures, like in China, one can call a waiter in a restaurant by words reserved for relatives, such as for an uncle. Their use in such contexts shows politeness towards the person addressed. In India, there are specific terms for specific aunts and uncles—for instance, tau refers to one’s father’s older brother, whereas chacha refers to one’s father’s younger brother.
In the business context, greetings are more formal in Europe and East Asia than in the United States. Mr/Ms/Mrs (to be followed by the full name or the surname) and Sir/ Madam are more common in Britain, Germany, France, China, and Russia. Japanese businesspeople avoid first names, and instead use Mr/Mrs/Miss/Dr, or they add san after the surname, for instance, “Shin san” if the name is Jin Boon Shin. Academics can be addressed as sensei (teacher). In China, the surname precedes the personal name; for example, Zhang Hua is Mr Zhang, not Mr Hua. Therefore, when addressing a Chinese person, it is best to use Mr/Mrs/ Miss and the surname. The Chinese also refer to each other by their job titles, for example “Manager Li”.
In Germany, even colleagues who have been working in the same office for 20 years, may use the formal form and address each other by their surname and title (Herr for a man or Frau for a woman). If someone has an academic title, it may also be added (for instance: Herr Dr or Frau Professor). The French also tend to be rather formal and do not use first names easily. They generally address each other by prefixing the surname with Monsieur, Madame, or Mademoiselle (for a young lady). Similarly, it is considered impolite to call an adult by their first name under any circumstances in Korea. Interestingly, titles such as Mr/Mrs/Miss are used to address juniors in Korea. On the other hand, Americans are more informal. They usually prefer to interact on first-name basis and may even greet each other with nicknames or shortened versions of their names, like “Bill” for William or “John” for Johnson.
For a non-Russian, the question of how to address a Russian person can be quite complicated. After 1917, the Russian words for Mr, Mrs, and Ms were abolished. The word tovarisch—meaning “comrade"—is used mainly in political meetings and is no longer common. Strangers use the word grazhdanin or grazhdanka—meaning “citizen” or “citizens”. When strangers are introduced, they will use their first names and surnames.
In Spain, although tu, the informal form of “you”, is used extensively, it is still the custom to use the more formal usted with strangers and older people. In Italy, when addressing others in business and professional contexts, one usually uses titles: dottore (doctor, but also anyone with a university degree), ingegnere (engineer), ragioniere (accountant), and professore (any teacher above elementary school level) are commonly used for male professionals. Female professionals are similarly addressed as dottoressa, professoressa, and so on.
A lack of awareness of the culture of the person one is interacting with may lead to serious misunderstandings, as evident from Exhibit 3.3.
On Arvind’s first day as senior manager in a firm in Japan, he was asked if he would like to pickup his recruitment letter and other forms. “It seemed like a suggestion, so I said I would do so later.”This casual remark lost him a lot of goodwill in the office. Suggestions are meant to be interpreted as commands in Japan, he learned later.
Preeti was preparing to receive her husband’s Chinese boss for dinner. She ordered special Chinese lanterns to welcome him. But when he arrived, he took one look at the lanterns, bowed, and took leave. Preeti ruefully recalls, “The Chinese use different lanterns for different social occasions. I had decorated my house with funeral lanterns.”
Deepa Sharma, a cross-cultural trainer who liaises between several Indian and American firms, says, “When doing business, many Indians, by and large, go on trust and goodwill. This creates an area of vagueness which can be problematic for Westerners who want everything on paper.” She recalls a joint construction project between an Indian and American firm. The Americans were checking and cross-checking the modalities required to finish the project. “This irritated the Indian engineers who felt the Americans were questioning their competency, while the Americans felt they were being clear, thorough, and transparent,” she says.
Cultural misunderstandings nearly derailed an Indo-Japanese project on a bridge. Ex-president of Turner Broadcasting (CNN) India and cross-cultural trainer, Bhaskar Pant, says, “An Indian firm sent a detailed list of technical questions to their Japanese counterparts. They panicked when no reply was forthcoming.”What had happened? Was the deal off? A week later, the Japanese responded. “Unlike in India or the West, the Japanese take feedback from everyone. The queries probably went to heads of different departments, so when the Japanese finally responded, they were presenting as full a picture as possible. This concept is alien in India or the West where e-mail etiquette means a response is required the next day.”
Source: Based on Ashwin Ahmad, “To the Manner Born at the Workplace”, TNN.
Our attitudes, values, beliefs, social behaviour, and language crystallize in the crucible of culture. Therefore, to be able to act and respond correctly in intercultural situations, it is important to know the other individual’s cultural background.
Verbal and non-verbal communication should be explained with reference to their cultural contexts. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, propounded the theory of strong linkage between culture and communication. While teaching intercultural skills to foreign service personnel in the 1950s, he developed the concepts of “high-context culture” and “low-context culture.”
Know the main characteristics of low-context and high-context cultures.
The kind of communication that dominates in a given culture relates directly to the type of the culture it is or, to be more precise, to the role of social context in that culture. Social context is interpreted as the network of social expectations that determine a person’s behaviour. The rules act as social context and guide behaviour almost spontaneously, with little conscious effort on the part of the participants in the interaction. Context is a key factor in determining the effect of culture on communication. It implies consideration of the framework, background, and surrounding circumstances in which communication takes place.
In a high-context culture, there are many contextual elements that help individuals understand the rules. Much is taken for granted while communicating. A person who does not know the unwritten rules of the culture may find communication confusing. High-context cultures are found in many Asian countries and much of the Middle East, South America, and Africa. People from these countries are more likely to be relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. This means that people in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships. Developing trust is an important first step to any business transaction. According to Hall4, these cultures are collectivist, preferring group harmony and consensus to individual achievement. People in these cultures may be less governed by reason than by intuition or feelings. Words are not as important as context, which might include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and even the person’s family history and status. A Japanese manager explained his culture’s communication style to an American in the following words: “We are a homogeneous people and don't have to speak as much as you do. When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one.” High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal. Flowery language, humility, and elaborate apologies are typical.
In a high-context culture, there are many contextual elements that help individuals understand the rules. Much is taken for granted while communicating. A person who does not know the unwritten rules of the culture may find communication confusing.
Learn how to communicate across cultures with different concepts of formal and social behaviour, time, and space.
In a low-context culture, very little is taken for granted. Therefore, explicit statements and explanations are required. The chances of misunderstanding by those outside that culture are minimized. Low-context cultures include those of North America and much of Western Europe. These cultures tend to value rationality, logic, action-oriented behaviour, and individualism. They emphasize reason, facts, and directness. Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating them. Decisions are based on facts rather than intuition. Discussions end with actions. Explicit contracts conclude negotiations. Communicators are expected to be straightforward, concise, and efficient in explaining all actions literally. This is very different from communication in high-context cultures, which depend less on precise language and legal documents. Businesspeople from high-context cultures may even distrust contracts and be offended by the lack of trust they suggest. Knowledge of the culture of one’s business associates helps set realistic expectations regarding the type of communication that is likely to happen. Exhibit 3.4 compares the characteristics of high-and low-context communication.
In a low-context culture, very little is taken for granted. Therefore, explicit statements and explanations are required. The chances of misunderstanding by those outside that culture are minimized.
According to Hall, another significant characteristic of a culture is how time is viewed in that culture. In his book The Silent Language, Hall coined the terms polychronic, to describe the ability to attend to multiple events simultaneously, and monochronic, to describe individuals and cultures with a preference for doing things sequentially. The main differences between the two are highlighted in Exhibit 3.5.5
M-time, as Hall calls it, means doing things in a sequential manner, one thing at a time. Monochronic people tend to carefully plan and schedule their work. They are known for their time management skills. A monochronic sense of time is more common in low-context cultures.
Monochronic time means doing things in a sequential manner, one thing at a time.
In a polychronic culture, human relationships are valued more than time. Polychronic people do not hurry to get things done, and they get things done in their own time. They are high-context people in their overall attitude towards information sharing.
In a polychronic culture, human relationships are valued more than time. Polychronic people do not hurry to get things done, and they get things done in their own time.
Within western cultures people have different attitudes towards time. For instance, Americans and Germans are highly monochronic, whereas the French tend to be largely polychronic. Hence, being late to a business meeting is a much bigger faux pas for a German or American executive than for a French executive.
Different cultures vary in their concern for space and social relationships within it. Hall calls the study of human concern for space proxemics. Concern for space primarily suggests personal body space. But it also relates to space in other situations such as in one’s room, in traffic, and in the office.
People are extremely sensitive to any intrusion into their personal space by others. But the area of personal territory differs from culture to culture and relationship to relationship. This concern for proper personal space will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 7. However, here we will consider it as one of the cultural factors affecting human relations and levels of comfort. For instance, a Japanese person may need less space and may stand too close for an American’s comfort without realizing it.
This concern for space may extend to the level of territorial possessiveness. In fact, perhaps all territorial feuds and wars result from an overzealous concern for space. This is often seen in offices, where some individuals with territorial tendencies fight for exclusive use of their office desks, behaving as if they possessed the desk and were not simply using it.
People of high territoriality tend to be from low-context cultures. People of low territoriality tend to have less of a sense of ownership of personal space and, accordingly, boundaries have less meaning for them. They readily share their territory and space. For example, in buses or trains some persons offer to share their seats with others with little hesitation.
This cultural analysis should help us understand an individual’s actions in the context of the type of culture to which he or she belongs. For example, the reason for a person being late to a meeting may not be laziness or lack of respect, but, rather, his or her having a polychronic cultural background and a more flexible attitude towards timings.
Cultural analysis should help us understand an individual’s actions in the context of the type of culture to which he or she belongs. For example, the reason for a person being late to a meeting may not be laziness or lack of respect, but, rather, his or her having a polychronic cultural background and a more flexible attitude towards timings.
An important prerequisite to understanding colleagues and acquaintances from other cultures is being able to accept various cultures on their own terms. It is important to guard against ethnocentrism—the practice of judging the behaviour of people from other cultures on the basis of what is considered to be “acceptable behaviour” in one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism and stereotyping can be barriers to effective communication, so it is important to avoid such tendencies.
This section highlights the norms of four different cultures in an attempt to emphasize the need to be aware of cultural differences and to adapt one’s style of communication when meeting people from different cultural backgrounds. However, one should always keep in mind that stereotyping can lead to incorrect assumptions, and individuals vary within cultures.
- Culture: Saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese believe that turning down someone’s request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person. If a request cannot be agreed to, they will say, “it is inconvenient” or “it is under consideration”.
There is great emphasis on politeness, personal responsibility, and working together for the universal rather than the individual good. Facts that might be unpleasant are expressed in a gentle and indirect fashion. Since the Japanese strive for harmony and work well in groups, they often rely on facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture to understand others.
- Business relationships and communication: The Japanese prefer to do business on the basis of personal relationships. One way to build and maintain relationships is with greetings and seasonal cards. In general, being introduced or recommended by someone who already has a good relationship with the company is extremely helpful as it helps them know how to place others in a hierarchy relative to themselves.
- Business meeting etiquette: Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized. While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far someone bows depends upon their relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper someone bows, the more respect they show.
Since this is a group society, foreigners should be prepared for group meetings. The most senior Japanese person will be seated farthest from the door, with the rest of the people seated in descending order of rank; the most junior person is seated closest to the door.
The Japanese often remain silent for long periods of time. Others should be patient and try to determine if their Japanese colleagues have understood what was said. Some Japanese people close their eyes when they want to listen intently.
The Japanese seldom grant concessions. They expect both parties to come to the table with their best offer. Business cards are exchanged frequently and with great ceremony. Business cards are given and received with two hands and a slight bow.
- Culture: The family is the social adhesive of the country, and each member has certain duties and responsibilities. The French are private people and have different rules of behaviour for people within their social circle and those outside it.
- Business relationships and communication: The handshake is a common form of greeting. Friends may greet each other by lightly kissing on each cheek. First names are generally reserved for family and close friends; one should not address someone by his or her first name until invited to do so. Mutual trust and respect are required to get things done.
The French like to use their own language; someone who does know speak French could apologize for not knowing the language as this may aid in developing a relationship.
- Business meeting etiquette: Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions without formal rituals. In business, the French often appear extremely direct because they are not afraid of asking probing questions. Meetings are held to discuss issues, not to make decisions. The French are often impressed with good debating skills that demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the situation and all its ramifications. Discussions may be heated and intense. One should never attempt to be overly friendly as the French generally compartmentalize their business and personal lives.
- Culture: In many respects, Germans can be considered the masters of planning. This is a culture that prizes forward thinking and knowing what they will be doing at a specific time on a specific day. Business and personal lives are rigidly divided. In a culture where most communication is rather formal, the home is where one can relax.
- Business relationships and communication: Germans do not need a personal relationship in order to do business. They tend to be interested in others’ academic credentials and the amount of time their business partners have been in business.
A quick, firm handshake is the traditional greeting. Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions without formal ritual. Germans do not have an open-door policy. People often work with their office doors closed. Visitors should knock and wait to be invited in before entering someone’s office.
German communication is formal. Following the established protocol is critical to building and maintaining business relationships. One can expect a great deal of written communication, both to back up decisions and to maintain a record of decisions and discussions. Letters should be addressed to the senior-most person in the relevant functional area and should include the person’s name as well as their proper business title.
- Business meeting etiquette: Punctuality is taken extremely seriously. If one is delayed, it is important to call immediately and offer an explanation for the delay. It is extremely rude to cancel a meeting at the last minute and it could jeopardize a business relationship.
Meetings adhere to strict agendas, including starting and ending times. Germans prefer to get down to business and only engage in the briefest of small talk. They maintain direct eye contact while speaking. Business is hierarchical, and decision-making happens at the top of the company. Once a decision is made, it will not be changed.
- Culture: Brazil is a mixture of races and ethnicities, which has resulted in rich diversity in the population. Unlike many other Latin American countries where there is a distinct Indian population, Brazilians have intermarried to the point that it sometimes seems that almost everyone has a combination of European, African, and indigenous ancestry. Families tend to be large (although family size has been diminishing in recent years) and the extended family is quite close.
- Business relationships and communication: Businesspeople usually shake hands when greeting one another, while maintaining steady eye contact. Women generally kiss each other on the cheek. Brazilians need to know who they are doing business with before they can work effectively. They prefer face-to-face meetings to written communication as it allows them to know the person with whom they are doing business. The individual they deal with is more important than the company. Communication is often informal and does not rely on strict rules of protocol. Anyone who feels they have something to say will generally add their opinion.
- Business meeting etiquette: In Sao Paulo and Brasilia, it is important to arrive on time for meetings. In Rio de Janeiro and other cities it is acceptable to arrive a few minutes late for a meeting. One should not appear impatient if kept waiting—Brazilians see time as something outside their control and the demands of relationships takes precedence over adhering to a strict schedule. Meetings are generally rather informal. One can expect to be interrupted while speaking or making a presentation. Business cards are exchanged during introductions with everyone at a meeting.
In a world where people from such varied cultures are required to communicate, Globlish—a simplified form of English—can be a great way of making our communication more effective. Exhibit 3.6 explains the concept of Globlish.
To make communication in English easier in a world where professionals from different cultural and language backgrounds interact, former IBM vice president Jean-Paul Nerrier came up with the concept of a language of just 1,500 words: Globlish.
Globlish, or “global English”, Nerriere maintains, is a tool of communication rather than a language. He feels that in the international context, speaking immaculate Oxford English is unnecessary, and can even be detrimental at times. In such situations, Globlish, which is a highly simplified and unidiomatic form of English, can be used to communicate with ease. It is important to note that Globlish is not"pidgin"or"broken” English. All the words are English, and so is the grammar. It’s just that the sentences are kept short and words like which, who, whose, and whom are replaced with punctuation marks.
In a country like India, where the educated usually speak more than one language and English is a second language, Globlish can be of great use for communicating clearly and effectively.
Sources: Based on “Master Globlish, Use it for Business Communication,”The Times of India, New Delhi, 27 July 2007; and S. Pathiravitana, “Superstitions in English Grammar”, Daily News, 25 March 2008.
The following are some general guidelines for communicating with people from other cultures. Cross-cultural communication is about dealing with people from other cultures in a way that minimizes misunderstandings and maximizes the potential for strong relationships. Because one cannot know everything about all cultures, these are general guidelines that should be applied for clear intercultural communication.
- Speak slowly: Slow down. Be clear and intelligible in pronunciation.
- Ask distinct questions: In cross-cultural situations, one should realize that the listener may understand only one question at a time. Therefore, ask distinct and separate questions and not double questions such as “Do you want to carry on or shall we stop here?”
- Avoid negative questions: Many misunderstandings are caused by the use of negative questions and answers. In English, we say yes if the answer is affirmative and no if it is negative. But in India, people tend to say yes if they think a negative question should be answered in the affirmative. For instance, if someone asks, “Is Neha not coming?”, one should say “No, she is coming” if Neha is indeed coming. But people tend to say, “Yes, she is not coming.” This response is based on the thought “You are right that she is not coming”, hence the answer begins with “yes”. This can lead to confusion, so such questions should be avoided.
- Take turns: To enhance cross-cultural interaction, people should speak and listen by turns. This means that the person who is speaking should make his or her point and then listen to the response.
- Be supportive: Speaking a foreign language when expressing oneself and understanding others may not be easy. Effective communication is in essence about being comfortable. Giving encouragement to those with weak English gives them confidence, support, and trust in you.
- Write it down: If you are unsure of whether something has been understood, write it down and check with the other person. This can be useful when using large figures. For example, in the United States, a billion is 1,000,000,000, while in the United Kingdom, it could mean 1,000,000,000,000.
- Check meanings: When communication with someone from an unfamiliar culture, never assume that the other person has understood you. It helps to summarize what has been said in order to verify it. This is a very effective way of ensuring that cross-cultural communication has been accurate.
- Avoid slang: Even the most educated foreigner tends to miss the meaning of slang and idioms. Avoid using slang in cross-cultural communication situations.
- Limit the humour: In many cultures business is taken very seriously. Professionalism and protocol are constantly observed. Many cultures do not appreciate the use of humour and jokes in the business context. While using humour consider whether it will be appreciated and understood in the other culture. For example, British sarcasm often has a negative effect abroad.
- Maintain etiquette and do some research: Many cultures follow a certain etiquette when communicating. When interacting with people from other cultures for the first time, do some research on that culture. For instance, one can read about the country online, refer to travel guides, talk to other people who may know about that country, learn some key phrases in their language, and so on.
- Be sensitive: Be sensitive to other people’s religious and dietary restrictions.
- Be attentive to cues: Be conscious of and sensitive to cues that others send out. One cannot be prepared for every situation, but one can learn a lot by observing others. For instance, when visiting another country, one can observe and follow the host’s lead (especially with regard to dining and greeting etiquette).
The globalization of business in the modern world demands that people of diverse cultures across the world communicate with one another. Physically, a manager and his or her team members may be located in far-flung locations. For example, a senior executive may be placed in the United States while his or her staff may be in India, Germany, or China. Similarly, an exporter in India may have associates in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and China. Their communication is an example of intercultural communication.
Understand e-mail etiquette for intercultural business communication.
People across the world use e-mail as an instant means of communicating, transmitting messages, and receiving responses. Through the Internet people are able to send documents, information, and requests to colleagues, customers, clients, or suppliers across the globe. With e-mail as the preferred mode of international communication, two issues need to be looked into: language and culture.
Despite its many advantages, e-mail has an inherent difficulty for the receiver. E-mail communication is highly culture-specific with regard to language, idiom, and style. For example, an Indian who has lived in the United States for a few years may pick up American slang and inadvertently expresses himself or herself in an American manner. The cultural colouring of the language of such an e-mail may pose some difficulties to persons in India. E-mail is a spontaneous medium and its effortlessness sometimes makes it more casual.
E-mail communication is highly culture-specific with regard to language, idiom, and style.
English is the most common language of business across all cultures. Although English is used as the language of global business, it is not equally understood and is often not used as native speakers speak it. This causes problems in international communication. Those for whom English is a second language may have problems in grammar, syntax, and choosing the correct words. In an e-mail, any error of vocabulary or grammar can present difficulties for the reader.
Although personal e-mails tend to have a more conversational tone and often use abbreviations, business e-mails are treated as formal, official documents. Thus, they should not be casually written. The sentences should be complete, grammatically correct, and abbreviations such as “u” for “you” are not acceptable. The format of e-mail communication is fixed with fields such as from, to, subject, date, and time. Other details such as the sender’s and receiver’s e-mail addresses are mentioned (sometimes along with mobile numbers which are part of the signature) to facilitate quick responses.
The actual format of an e-mail may differ from culture to culture. In some formal cultures, the normal practice is to begin by addressing someone by their name (and perhaps surname). Others may be less formal and go directly to the content of the e-mail. In either form, one may find an e-mail to be too formal or too informal. The content of an e-mail is also culture-dependent. Some cultures permit the use of slang and humour and some insist on the use of proper business expressions and courtesies.
The choice of words in an e-mail is also influenced by the culture of its sender. It is possible to get replies that say neither “yes” nor “no” in response to an e-mail, especially when corresponding with someone from a culture that is indirect in its communication style (such as India or Japan). For example, as discussed earlier, the Japanese believe that turning down someone’s request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person. If the request cannot be agreed to, they may say “it is inconvenient” or “it is under consideration”. In India, if a request is to be turned down, it is usually done by saying “we’ll see”. Sometimes, the use of a culture-specific phrase in an e-mail will be problematic for someone who is not familiar with that phrase. For example, the phrase “will touch base later” in Exhibit 3A in Communication Snapshot 3.1 has an implied meaning. In India, one would examine the meaning of each word separately. But when “touch” and “base” are put together in this phrase, it means “we shall speak later” in American and British English. This significance would only be understood by those who are familiar with its use.
Exhibit 3A shows a business mail from Pallavi, an advertising professional, to her colleague, asking him to remind her client about providing feedback on a draft proposal. Note how she uses U.S.-specific words and phrases in her mail. The informal tone and abbreviations used in the mail are best avoided in a business mail.
The examples in Communication Snapshot 3.1 show some different types of e-mails and illustrate how they may be inappropriate or difficult to understand in a different culture.
Exhibits 3B, 3C and 3D illustrate a series of e-mails exchanged between the project manager of an airport upgrade unit of Royale Airlines and an official from an information systems provider based in the United States. Note the tone of the mails and the intended humour, expressions, etc.
- Cross-cultural communication is about dealing with people from other cultures in a way that minimizes misunderstandings and maximizes the potential for strong relationships.
- With increasing globalization, interaction between people from different societies and cultures has become unavoidable. This necessitates cultural orientation on the part of the visitors so that they are familiar with the host culture, specially the use of habitual expressions and expected behaviour in different situations.
- Cultural sensitivity is very important in helping a person adapt to a foreign culture. Cultural sensitivity is required to understand how to conduct oneself when attending meetings, visiting someone, joining a group or simply addressing someone.
- When working in different cultures, one should consider whether a culture is high-context or low-context by observing the actions of others. When one understands the prevalent culture, it is easier to understand the business atmosphere and increase one’s influence.
- In the international business environment, e-mail has become a prevalent method of communication. One needs to be aware of cultural differences when exchanging e-mails with colleagues, clients and business partners from different cultures.
On the morning after the Academy Awards, I awoke with a question on my mind: “What do movies do best?” Do they help us understand the challenges others face? Do they teach us about other cultures and diverse backgrounds, or do they just make us feel good? While all of these are possible, consider this: movies allow us to work out our own emotional issues through the actions of the characters on screen.
When Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006, I was thrilled. Why? Because the movie did what it was supposed to do. It made a whole lot of people “uncomfortable”. For some, it evoked memories of their own discrimination experiences; for others, it calls to mind their own biased behaviour or that of someone close to them. But is that enough?
Of course it’s not enough. Now, it’s up to you and to me and to anyone left with emotional questions to answer after seeing the film to take action and expand their understanding. What do we do with unconscious fears and unspoken prejudices the movie uncovered? If we don't find them, understand them, and deal with them, we end up repeating behaviour that creates cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Fear-based behaviour comes up when we least expect it as we experience racism, ageism, wealthism, homophobism or any number of “isms” and can't believe it’s happening to us, inside of us, around us, or, in the worst case, that it’s actually perpetrated by us—even today.
Kenneth Turan, film critic for the LA Times, suggests that Crash is a “feel-good movie about racism…a film that could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed.” He used this as a reason that the “liberal” Academy voters chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture award.
Both movies made people distinctly uncomfortable. My diversity partner, Dr Jo Ann Piata, and I submit that Crash pushed more buttons. More people identified with the discomfort of Crash. We ask, “What’s wrong with a little button pushing if it pushes people out of their comfort zones and into change?” Now the job to be done is to bridge the learning and understanding we garnered from Crash and apply them to our lives and our businesses or the movie’s mission has been wasted and we will prove Kenneth Turan’s pessimistic view to be right. Button pushing can be manipulative or it can be healing; it’s our choice.
What can you do now? Listen to the prejudiced voices in your own head—they create cultural blocks. Notice the way you interact with others. Who do you choose to be with? Are the people around you similar to you or different than you? If you sense discomfort when close to someone who you perceive to be different from you, take just a few moments to imagine what it would be like to live that person’s life. How does that feel?
Look below the surface of behaviours to identify the values and beliefs that drive particular behaviour. Do this for a few days, and then write down the thoughts and feelings that make you uncomfortable. Now try to determine who influenced you to think and feel this way. Once you answer that question, you can make a choice to give that thinking back to its original source and change your own thinking, feeling, and behaving. This is an exercise you may use for the rest of your life—it will definitely keep you from crashing.
Questions to Answer
- Mention one area of sensitivity that you are not able to handle while dealing with people.
- Analyse a professional or personal experience that created cultural block in you.
Source: Judith Parker Harris and Jo Ann Piña,"Cross-Cultural Communication Lessons from the Academy Award Winner CRASH” (www.culturalblockbusters.com).
- Do you believe in Hall’s theory of cultural context? Give reasons for your answer.
- What factors should be kept in mind when conducting business in unfamiliar cultures?
- If you and your spouse are in New York waiting for a cab, and if a friend driving alone offers you a ride, where will you sit?
- Discuss e-mail as a preferred mode of intercultural communication.
- What is cultural sensitivity? How will it help in making your intercultural communication effective?
- Discuss how cultural differences are seen in group behaviour when the group is joined by a new person.
- What is culture? Show to what extent our behaviour as social beings reflects our culture.
- Discuss the broad characteristics of communication in a high-context culture.
- Show how differences between monochronic and poly-chronic cultures affect the behaviour of individuals in certain situations.
- How is space a factor in intercultural communication?
- Reflect on the essential difference between cultural sensitivity and cultural intelligence.
- What points would you keep in mind when you visit a family member in a foreign country?
- Do you believe that training in foreign ways of eating, dressing, and meeting people is helpful in intercultural interactions?
- What should we do to retain our own cultural identity when we are communicating with people from different cultures?
- What aspects of one’s interactions exhibit one’s cultural context?
In an intercultural situation, you receive a message saying “no” from someone’s lips, but their eyes send a contradictory suggestion saying “yes”. How would you decide what to do? Give reasons for your answer.
From the given options, please choose the most appropriate answer:*
- In international business, the trend to “go local” has led to the local people and foreign experts performing as:
- workers and employers
- trainee and trainer
- a team
- hosts and guests
- Culture is embedded in our:
- Cultural intelligence helps us to know cultural:
- rules of behaviour
- An individual’s behaviour in a foreign society becomes noticeable when it ____________ in relation to the foreign culture.
- Culture refers to:
- rules of behaviour
- People in high-context cultures make business decisions on the basis of:
- interpersonal relations
- individual needs
- The exclusive centre of interest in low-context communication is:
- emotional factors
- individual perceptions
- In monochronic cultures, the priority is:
- the job
- goal achievement
- multiple tasks
- The aim of cross-cultural communication training is to:
- improve behaviour
- create strong cultural ties
- develop business etiquette
- give social status
- An e-mail’s style is determined by a person’s:
- communicative ability