How Culture Controls Communication
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leaders know that intercultural savvy is vitally important – not just
because they have to deal increasingly with globalization, but also
because the work force within their own national borders is growing
more and more p.
is, basically, a set of shared values that a group of people holds.
Such values affect how you think and act and, more importantly, the
kind of criteria by which you judge others. Cultural meanings render
some behaviors as normal and right
and others strange or wrong. (The
Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead devotes
two chapters to the nonverbal aspects of cross-cultural communication.
On my next post I’ll cover some of the body language nuances of global
culture has rules that its members take for granted. Few of us are
aware of our own biases because cultural imprinting is begun at a very
early age. And while some of culture’s knowledge, rules, beliefs,
values, phobias and anxieties are taught explicitly, most is absorbed
course, we are all individuals, and no two people belonging to the same
culture are guaranteed to respond in exactly the same way. However,
generalizations are valid to the extent that they provide clues on what
you will most likely encounter – and how those
differences impact communication. Here are three such generalizations.
are either high-context or low-context
aspect of global communication is influenced by cultural differences.
Even the choice of medium used to communicate may have cultural
overtones. For example, it has been noted that industrialized nations
rely heavily on electronic technology and emphasize written messages
over oral or face-to-face communication. Certainly the United States,
Canada, the UK and Germany exemplify this trend. But Japan, which has
access to the latest technologies, still relies more on face-to-face
communications than on the written mode. The determining factor in
medium preference may not be the degree of industrialization, but
rather whether the country falls into a high-context
some cultures, personal bonds and informal agreements are far more
binding than any formal contract. In others, the meticulous wording of
legal documents is viewed as paramount. High-context cultures
(Mediterranean, Slav, Central European, Latin American, African, Arab,
Asian, American-Indian) leave much of the message unspecified – to be
understood through context, nonverbal cues, and between-the-lines
interpretation of what is actually said. By contrast, low-context
cultures (most of the Germanic and English-speaking countries) expect
messages to be explicit and specific. The former are looking for
meaning and understanding in what is not said – in
body language, in
silences and pauses, and in relationships and empathy. The latter place
emphasis on sending and receiving accurate messages directly, and by
being precise with spoken or written words.
communication trap that U.S. business leaders may fall into is a
(costly) disregard for the importance of building and maintaining
personal relationships when dealing with individuals from high-context
are either sequential or synchronic
cultures think of time sequentially – as a linear commodity to “spend,”
“save,” or “waste.” Other cultures view time synchronically – as a
constant flow to be experienced in the moment, and as a force that
cannot be contained or controlled.
sequential cultures (like North American, English,
German, Swedish, and Dutch), businesspeople give full attention to one
agenda item after another. In many other parts of the world,
professionals regularly do several things at the same time. I once
cashed a traveler’s check at a Panamanian bank where the teller was
counting my money, talking to a customer on the phone, and admiring the
baby in the arms of the woman behind me. To her, it was all business as
American commoditization of time not only serves as the basis for a
“time is money” mentality, it can lead to a fixation on timelines that
plays right into the hands of savvy negotiators from other cultures. A
Chinese executive explained: “All we need to do is find out when you
are scheduled to leave the country and we wait until right before your
flight to present our offer. By then, you are so anxious to stay on
schedule, you’ll give away the whole deal.”
synchronic cultures (including
southern Europe and Asia) the flow of time is viewed as a sort of
circle – with the past, present, and future all inter-related. This
viewpoint influences how organizations in those cultures approach
deadlines, strategic thinking, investments, developing talent from
within, and the concept of “long-term” planning.
time is perceived as a commodity or a constant determines the meaning
and value of being “on time.” Think of the
misunderstandings that can occur when one culture views arriving late
for a meeting as bad planning or a sign of disrespect, while another
culture views an insistence on timeliness as childish impatience.
to the past, present, and future is another aspect of time in which
cultures disagree. Americans believe that the individual can influence
the future by personal effort, but since there are too many variables
in the distant future, we favor a short-term view. This gives us an
international reputation of “going for the quick buck” and being
interested only in the next quarterly return. Even our relationships
seem to be based on a “what have you done for me lately?” pragmatism.
cultures have an entirely different perspective. The past becomes a
context in which to understand the present and prepare for the future.
Any important relationship is a durable bond that goes back and forward
in time, and it is often viewed as grossly disloyal not
to favor friends and relatives
in business dealings.
are either affective or neutral
much angry gesturing, an Italian manager referred to the idea of his
Dutch counterpart as “crazy.” The Dutch manager replied. “What do you
mean, crazy? I’ve considered all the factors, and I think this is a
viable approach. And calm down! We need to analyze this, not get
sidetracked by emotional theatrics.” At that point, the Italian walked
out of the meeting.
international business dealings, reason and emotion both play a role.
Which of these dominates depends upon whether we are affective
(readily showing emotions) or
emotionally neutral in our approach. Members of
neutral cultures do not telegraph their feelings, but keep them
carefully controlled and subdued. In cultures with high affect, people
show their feelings plainly by laughing, smiling, grimacing, scowling –
and sometimes crying, shouting, or walking out of the room.
doesn’t mean that people in neutral cultures are cold or unfeeling. But
in the course of normal business activities, neutral cultures are more
careful to monitor the amount of emotion they display. Research
conducted with people who were upset about something at work, noted
that only some cultures supported expressing those feelings openly.
Emotional reactions were found to be least
acceptable in Japan, Indonesia,
the U.K., Norway and the Netherlands – and most
accepted in Italy, France, the
U.S. and Singapore.
easy for people from neutral cultures to sympathize with the Dutch
manager and his frustration over trying to reason with “that excitable
Italian.” After all, an idea either works or it doesn’t work – and the
way to test the validity of an idea is through trial and observation.
That just makes sense – doesn’t it? Well, not necessarily to the
Italian who felt the issue was deeply personal, and who viewed any
“rational argument” as totally irrelevant!
today’s global business community, there is no single best approach to
communicating with one another. The key to cross-cultural success is to
develop an understanding of, and a deep respect for, the differences.
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com Authors Google+
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2011-12-01 11:18:07 in Business Articles