INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS
In each of the above scenarios, we see people of different cultures communicating with one another and how their different cultural orientations result in problems or misunderstandings in the communication. With more and more companies going global in today’s changing business environment, it is not at all uncommon to walk into an office and to find ourselves looking at a multinational multicultural workforce. In fact, this is becoming more and more the norm these days. Coupled with the easy availability of sophisticated means of long-distance communication like the email and videoconferencing facilities, today’s business environment, even if confined to your home country, will more likely place you in communication situations involving colleagues or clients whose cultures are different from yours. So, in order to succeed at the workplace today, it is important for you to develop effective intercultural communication skills.
In subsequent sections, the following topics will be dealt with: definition of culture; fundamental cultural orientations; verbal communication; non-verbal communication; culture’s influence on written business communication; and tips on how to communicate effectively across cultures.
1 Definition of culture
Bovee, Thill & Schatzman (2003) define culture as a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behaviour. It is “the coherent, learned, shared view a group of people has about life’s concerns that ranks what is important, instills attitudes about what things are appropriate, and prescribes behavior, given that some things have more significance than others”. (Varner and Beamer, 1995: 2)
It is useful to take note of a few points about the above definition:
• Culture is not something that we are born with, but rather it is learned, imparted to us through our upbringing and exposure to the practices and rules of conduct of the culture of which we are a part.
• Culture is shared by a society and members of a society agree about the meanings of things and why.
• Culture teaches values and priorities, which in turn shape attitudes.
• Culture prescribes behaviour and members of a society usually behave in ways that they think are appropriate or acceptable in their culture. However, what may be acceptable or appropriate in one culture may be unacceptable in another culture.
In the movie Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian living in Tibet, was asked by the Dalai Lama to build some sort of a movie theatre in Lhasa. In one scene, while he and a group of Tibetans were digging the piece of land on which the theatre was going to be built, their shovels and spades uncovered earthworms in the ground. The Tibetans made a big fuss about this and work on building the theatre had to be stopped for a while, much to Heinrich Harrer’s amazement and frustration. Work only resumed after all the earthworms were safely collected in containers and transferred to another location.
What do you think happened? Why did the Tibetans make such a big fuss about the earthworms? Why was Heinrich Harrer amazed and frustrated by what happened?
The iceberg is a good analogy to use to illustrate the concept of culture in which the part above water that can be seen illustrates tangible expressions of culture like behaviour, clothing and food while the part below the surface represents the underlying attitudes, beliefs, values, and meanings.
To be effective in communicating across cultures, it is not enough to recognize differences in behaviours. Of greater importance is striving to understand the underlying factors responsible for those differences. We also need to accept what Mole (1996) has pertinently pointed out – that very often the way others do things is not different out of stupidity or carelessness or incompetence or malice, though it may sometimes seem that way. Most people do what seems the right thing to do at the time. And the judgment of what is right is rooted in beliefs, values, attitudes, as well as habit, tradition and accepted norms. Therefore, the first important step towards more effective intercultural communication is to increase our awareness of those crucial underlying factors starting firstly with our own cultures then proceeding with the target cultures. It is only with a better understanding of these factors that we can then communicate more clearly and build more meaningful relationships with colleagues, customers, suppliers, and other individuals both locally and internationally.
At any one time, each of us belongs to more than one culture, the most obvious being the culture of the country in which we live. Other cultural entities include an ethnic group, a religious group, or even a profession that has its own specialized ways of doing things. Given the constraint of time, the emphasis in what follows will be on communication across national cultures. It is very important to note that statements made about any culture are mere generalizations about cultural norms; they are not absolute truths, and exceptions must be allowed as individuals in the same culture do not necessarily behave according to the norms of their culture. The norms of a culture also change over time. As members of a particular culture realize that a practice or custom no longer works, it will be substituted with something else that is viewed as more acceptable, though change usually takes time.
2. Fundamental cultural orientations
To understand the belief systems and fundamental values that are at the heart of culture, it is useful to examine some fundamental cultural orientations, the categories of which remain the same though the specific orientations differ from one country to the next. Five main cultural orientations will be looked at: (a) how contexting and face saving affect communication; (b) how the individual is viewed in relation to the group; (c) how time is perceived; (d) how status is accorded; and (e) how decisions are made.Note that these are “orientations” or “tendencies”. Avoid stereotyping any group of people by assuming that everyone belonging to a cultural group shares exactly the same cultural behaviors, beliefs and traits.
2.1 How contexting and face-saving affect communication
All communication occurs in a context. The more two people share knowledge and experience, the less important it is for them to express directly what they wish to say or write. The less they share, the more they must express in words and gestures to be understood. This is the concept of contexting. Cultures can be placed on a continuum from high to low context, NOT a dichotomy between high and low contexts.
In high-context cultures, examples of which include most Asian and Middle Eastern countries, people rely less on verbal communication and more on the context of nonverbal cues, environmental settings, and implicit information, shared by the parties in the communication, to convey meaning. As a result, they can appear as rather indirect and vague in their verbal communication. In contrast, in low-context cultures such as the United States, Switzerland and Germany, people rely more on verbal communication and less on circumstances and non-verbal cues to convey meaning so they are very direct, precise and explicit in their communication.
Face-saving is the act of preserving one’s outward dignity. Though people of all cultures are concerned with face saving, the value attached to the maintenance of status and respect varies significantly from culture to culture. Usually, the more highly contexted a culture is, the more importance its members attach to face saving.
Very often, the indirectness that characterizes the communication in most high-context cultures is to a large extent a strategy to avoid causing another person to lose face. In that sense, it can be viewed as consideration for another person’s sense of dignity. However, to people coming from low-context cultures, this indirectness may be seen as dishonesty, suggesting that the speaker may have something to hide.
2.2 How the individual is viewed in relation to the group
Cultures can be characterized as either more individualist or collectivist in orientation. Hofstede (1991) defines the individualist culture as one in which the ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. He contrasts this with a collectivist culture in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive groups, which throughout their lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
In an individualist culture, independence is highly valued; in a collectivist culture, the individual is regarded as part of the group and a high degree of interdependence prevails in the same group.
Varner and Beamer (1995) point out that in an individualist culture, a single person can earn credit or blame for the success or failure of a company project while in a collectivist culture, credit or blame goes to the group. Individuals in a collectivist culture do not usually seek recognition and are uncomfortable if it is given. In a collectivist culture, ‘members of a team are more concerned with fulfilling their obligations to a group than being self-fulfilled in terms of personal achievements’ (Abdullah, 1996:26).
Most Asian and Latin American countries are generally collectivist in orientation. Examples of individualist cultures include the US, most parts of Western and Northern Europe and Australia and New Zealand.
2.3 How time is perceived
Hall (1991) makes a distinction between cultures that are monochronic and those that are polychronic. In monochronic cultures, time is seen as a way to organize the business day efficiently. In such cultures, people place a high emphasis on schedules, a precise reckoning of time and promptness and schedules usually take precedence over interpersonal relations. People in such cultures try to get to the point quickly when communicating and they also tend to focus on only one task during each scheduled period. Apart from the US and the UK in which time is perceived as such, some Asian countries also fall in this category typically in business contexts. They include Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In polychronic cultures, time is seen as more fluid and people do not observe strict schedules. Preset schedules are subordinate to interpersonal relations and people take whatever time is needed to get to know each other and build a foundation for the business relationship. It is not unusual in such cultures for business meetings to be interrupted by other things completely unrelated to the discussion. Most Arab and African countries are in this category. In social contexts, Singapore is also more polychronic in nature.
2.4 How status is accorded
Cultures also differ in how status is accorded. In some cultures, status is accorded to people based more on their individual achievements while in others status is ascribed to people by virtue of their age, family background, profession, and so on. In the latter, organizations are usually more hierarchical and extensive use of titles especially for high ranking executives and officials is the norm. In the former, organizations are less hierarchical and titles are usually only used when they are relevant to the competence one brings to the task, for example, a medical doctor. Again, cultures can be placed on a continuum from less hierarchical to more hierarchical. Most Asian and Arab countries are more hierarchical compared to the US and most other European countries.
In most Asian societies, within an organisation, it is important to show the proper respect for individuals depending on their rank and position. When addressing people who are older or of higher status, people speak politely and formally. It is also considered inappropriate to interrupt authority figures when they are speaking and their opinions carry a lot of weight. This leads to the practice of never questioning what they say, especially in front of other people, as this will be viewed as a sign of disrespect and can also lead to a loss of face. This behaviour may however be interpreted as a lack of assertiveness on the part of the employee in cultures that are less hierarchical and where employees are free to interrupt their superiors and voice their own opinions.
2.5 How decisions are made
In the United States and Canada, businesspeople try to reach decisions as quickly and efficiently as possible. Main points are agreed upon first while the details are left to be worked out later. However, in some other cultures, like Greece for example, spending time on each little point is considered a mark of good faith and anyone who ignores the details is seen as being evasive and untrustworthy. Similarly, Latin Americans prefer to make their deals slowly, after much discussion and the Japanese and many of their Asian counterparts look for group consensus before making a decision. This is in part related to the collectivist nature of these cultures as well as concern for maintaining harmony. In such cultures, decisions in business negotiations are not made by delegates without consulting the organization. This contrasts with the practice in some other more individualist cultures where decisions can be made on the spot by representatives of the organization.
Gender relations are also crucial in decision-making processes. In recent years, more and more women have occupied top-level corporations and therefore have provided strong voices in decision-making. However, it is still a reality that women are less represented in executive-level positions. Male executives are generally still the ones who make important decisions in their companies. Nevertheless, the inroads made in diversifying corporate cultures cannot be ignored because many women have broken the barriers of power in their work. All this tells us that we also need to be very careful about understanding the nature of corporate culture – it varies from one corporation to another, from one country to another.
If you attend a meeting or are observing one, you are in a sense trying to understand the corporate culture of the participants. How do they make decisions? Are the participants conscious of the fact that their meetings are formal and therefore they need to use language that is appropriate for the situation? Or is the whole discussion informal, with participants sometimes bringing in personal issues that may not be directly relevant to the topics being discussed but are nevertheless useful in establishing more comfortable interpersonal relations between them? Sometimes, professionalism takes a backseat and personal matters come into the picture. Even in top-level meetings, perhaps even more so in these contexts, executives know each other very well that the professional and the personal are no longer clearly demarcated. In many corporate meetings, top-level executives also talk about the movies they have watched during the weekend, or share about the latest novels or other books they have read. In other contexts, these are culturally not acceptable since meeting participants are expected to be formal, serious and professional.
3. Verbal communication
In discussing verbal communication, the choice of words and expressions, organization of messages, and clarity of pronunciation will be examined. All points made and examples given are for communication in the English language.
3.1 Choice of words and expressions
When you are communicating with people of a different culture, you need to pay careful attention to your choice of words and expressions. Avoid ambiguous words, unfamiliar words, acronyms, idiomatic expressions and slang.
• Ambiguous words
The same word may have very different interpretations in different cultures and this could give rise to miscommunication when interacting with people across cultures. e.g. “table”
When one suggests tabling something for discussion, it means putting it on the meeting agenda in England but it means taking it off the agenda in the US.
• Unfamiliar words
The use of unfamiliar words can also cause a breakdown in communication.
In Singapore, these are common: In the United States, these are common:
Please queue up. Please get in line.
Could I have the bill, please? Could I have the cheque, please?
Take away, please. To go, please.
Acronyms that are easily understood by members of one culture may be totally incomprehensible to members of another culture.
e.g. FYI, ASAP, EDB, IPO
These expressions can create a breakdown in communication when used in an intercultural context, especially one involving non-native speakers of English.
To break a leg (To do well at some performance)
To hold one’s tongue (To refrain from saying something unpleasant or nasty)
To rain cats and dogs (To rain very heavily)
More money down the drain (More money to spend)
Cultures may develop their own slang that may be foreign to other cultures using the same language.
An advertisement by Electrolux worked very well in Europe but was unusable in the United States. The advertisement carries the slogan, “Nothing sucks like the Electrolux.” The slogan will not go down well with an American audience because the slang expression “it sucks” has negative connotations in the US. In Europe, the word “sucks” has a literal meaning so the slogan is perfectly all right.
3.2 Organization of messages
It is also important to organize your messages in a way that is suitable for your target audience whose culture is different from yours. Many English-speaking countries prefer a direct approach to most messages with the main idea presented first and the details given later. However, for many other cultures like Latin American, Japanese and Arabic cultures, this direct approach is not usually favoured and may even sometimes be seen as tactless and rude. This preference can be traced back to the nature of the culture with respect to contexting and face-saving.
3.3 Clarity of pronunciation
The clear articulation of speech is important in any speaking situation but even more so when speaking in an intercultural communication context. Some words are so close in pronunciation that articulating them wrongly or “lazily” could create confusion in communication.
differ / defer pot / port access / assess tree / three
leaf / lift pan / pen paint / pain cuff / carve
4. Nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication adds to the message and a failure to interpret nonverbal signals correctly can lead to unwanted misunderstandings and a breakdown in the communication process. In intercultural communication, it is important to recognize that people from different cultures attach different meanings to nonverbal signals. Seven types of nonverbal signals will be examined in this section: body language; eye contact; laughter; touch; physical space; tone, volume and speed; and turn-taking.
4.1 Body language
Posture. The way we sit, stand and walk sends a nonverbal message. While in some cultures, sitting upright in a chair may be viewed as being alert and showing respect for the other party in the communication process, in some other cultures, the same posture may be viewed as a sign of the other person being uptight or even aggressive.
Head movements. In many parts of the world, including Singapore and China, the head nod means yes. However, in Bulgaria, parts of Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran and Bengal, people nod their heads up and down to signal no. In these countries, shaking their heads back and forth means yes.
4.2 Eye contact
In most Asian cultures, eye contact is generally indirect. In fact, lowering of the eyes usually indicate respect and humility for the other party. However, in North America and northern European culture, direct eye contact shows openness, trustworthiness and integrity.
In many Asian cultures, laughter, especially in the form of giggling, may not be a reaction to anything humorous but rather an expression of embarrassment when people do not understand something, for example, a joke related by a Western colleague.
The handshake has become an accepted touch between business people when they first meet but the type of handshake varies widely across cultures. In most Western cultures, a firm handshake is a sign of strength and character and indicates sincerity. However, in countries like Japan and Thailand, the handshake is usually very soft, almost limp. Foster (2000) posits that this does not indicate insincerity; rather it is an indication of humility using a Western form of greeting.
4.5 Physical space
Goodman (1995) highlights that in interpersonal communication, the physical space between speakers adds to the message. Culture determines whether the distance is too close or too far away. Distance can be thought of as showing degrees of intimacy.
Space between speakers
Source: Goodman’s Working in a Global Environment
The intimate space is reserved for people one is closest too and this space is generally extremely inappropriate at the workplace. The casual-personal range denotes the space where friends and relatives are usually comfortable in. The socio-consultative distance is generally appropriate for the workplace whole the public space at work is limited to formal presentations. The actual distance for each of these categories again differs from culture to culture so failing to understand differences in the appropriate physical distance between speakers can lead to some discomfort and serious miscommunication.
4.6 Tone, volume and speed
Tone, volume and speed of speaking also vary widely in different cultures. What in one culture may sound like a heated argument may in another culture be considered the norm for a reasonable discussion. Indonesians, Filipinos and Thais usually speak in soft, hushed tones. In these cultures, emotions are also generally restrained and losing one’s control may be considered very bad form; being cool and self-possessed is what is admired. In Latin American cultures, the pace of speaking is generally fast and volume loud, with more ups and downs in intonation. This way of speaking shows that one has one’s heart in the matter.
4.7 Turn-taking and silence
Turn-taking in conversation and the role of silence also differ between cultures. In some cultures, it is acceptable and even desirable to interrupt while someone else is speaking as it indicates enthusiasm and interest in the conversation. However, in some other cultures, interrupting is considered rude; people in these cultures usually wait for the other party to finish speaking before making their point. In some cultures, a period of silence between contributions is accepted as the norm. Taking time to process the information before one starts speaking is in fact a sign of respect for the other person but people in some other cultures feel uncomfortable with these periods of silence and tends to fill them up with ‘unnecessary’ talk.
5. Culture’s influence on written business communication
Cultures also influence our written business communication.
5.1 Organisation of messages
In most English-speaking countries, the writing style of business messages that is preferred is direct, clear and concise. Writers will also ensure that every part of the message is directly relevant to the subject under discussion. This direct rhetorical pattern of writing can be represented by a straight line from the opening sentence to the last sentence. This writing style is characteristic of low-context cultures. However, in many oriental cultures, which also tend to be high-context in orientation, the preferred writing style could be very different. Writing in these cultures is marked by indirectness and paragraph development may be said to be turning and spiraling in a circular fashion. In Japan, for example, what is regarded as good writing style follows the kishotenketsu organization. Ki is the small talk which has nothing to do with the business at hand, sho is raising the subject where the company may be introduced before the writer moves gradually into the purpose of the letter, ten is rolling it where further effort is made to establish rapport and credibility, and ketsu is ending it beautifully by focusing on the addressee and offering congratulations on his or her company’s achievements. Click here for an example of letter using the kishotenketsu organisation.
5.2 Mechanics and format
The mechanics and format of letter writing also differ across cultures. In Singapore, because of the British influence, most of the time dates are written the European way (day.month.year), and addresses are written the Western way, beginning with the name, and working down to the street, city and country plus postal code. In China, Japan, and South Korea, business letters are usually very formal and respectful of rank and hierarchy. Last names are usually written in uppercase and dates are given in the year.month.day format. The address is usually written beginning with the country and postal code, followed by the city (and prefecture), street address and finally company and/or personal name.
6. Tips for effective intercultural communication
In order for you to become an effective communicator in this global workplace, the following is a list of things that you should try to work towards (adapted from Bovee, Thill and Schatzman, (2003: 63-72):
• Develop a sense of cultural awareness. First of all, be aware of what it means to be from your own country. Then, learn all you possibly can about the culture of the people with whom you need to communicate.
• Do away with ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge all other groups according to your own group’s standards, behaviours and customs and to see other groups as inferior by comparison. You have to give up your ethnocentricity in an intercultural communication context, because different cultures have different ways of behaving and interpreting behaviours so you must:
• Recognise differences. Just because people do things differently from you, it does not mean that they are inefficient or stupid. Being different should not always be seen as negative.
• Show respect for your counterparts.
• Learn to adapt. Be flexible and ready to adapt or adjust your behaviour, but do not overdo your adjustment as then you may be perceived as insincere. Just try to act in a way appropriate to the target culture, be yourself and show sincerity.
• Be more tolerant. Because people of different cultures do things differently from one another, you must be tolerant of deviations from the norms – what you are used to in your own culture. Remember what may be the norm for you may not be the norm for other cultures.
• Listen carefully and empathise. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, consider his/her point of view and understand where he/she is coming from.
• Look beyond the superficial. Do not get distracted by dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.
• Do not lapse into your own language while in the presence of others who do not speak it. When in an intercultural context, always use a language which is understood by all. Using a language that is only understood by the few people from your own culture may be seen as your way of excluding all others in the group or may suggest that you have something negative to say.
• Take responsibility for the communication. Do not assume it is the other person’s responsibility to make the communication work. As a party in the communication process, you also have to do your part to ensure effective communication.
When using language,
• Send clear messages in both oral and written communication
• Use simple, frequently used words
• Be very careful with translation
• Avoid slang, acronyms, colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions
In written communication,
• Use short, simple sentences and short paragraphs
• Number points for clarity
• Reflect your relationship with the reader in your choice of words
In oral communication,
• Speak slowly and clearly
• Be careful with pronunciation
• Simplify speech
• Make one point at a time
• Adapt tone of voice, style and behaviour to what is culturally acceptable to your audience
• Watch the other person for misunderstanding and be ready to provide feedback
As a final note, while learning all you can about a particular culture is a good way to figure out how to send and receive intercultural messages effectively, it is unrealistic to expect to understand another culture completely. No matter how much you study French culture, for example, you will never be French if you are a Singaporean who have been born and bred in Singapore. In addition, do not overgeneralize and look at people as stereotypical “Germans” or “Americans” and then never move beyond that view. As in all our interpersonal communication, we need to communicate with individuals as individuals who are by their very nature unique, one from the other, whatever culture they come from. To be effective in intercultural communication, it helps to learn useful general information but it is imperative to be aware and open to variations and individual differences.