Communication Across Cultures


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An introductory presentation on thinking about and understanding cultural differences, mainly based on the survey of existing literature on the subject.

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  • Raymond Williams (1921 – 1988), Welsh Academic, Novelist and Critic, is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Culture Studies in the UK.
  • There are hundreds of definition of culture, but we pick this definition because the current discussion is on Business context. Geert Hofstede,currently the Professor of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at the University of Limburg at Maastricht, the Netherlands, is regarded as the pioneer in studying culture in the workplace. Hofstede studied executives at IBM across its various offices across the world in the late 1960s, and compiled his research data to write his seminal CULTURE’S CONSEQUENCES in 1980. We shall return to Hofstede later in this presentation. It is important, at this stage, to state that there are various layers/ levels of culture as people always belong to different cultural groups. For example, one may be a Mumbaikar, a Bengali, an Indian at the same time. However, for the sake of this presentation, we shall keep our discussion limited to NATIONAL CULTURES, though we shall be aware of various regional and local variations. This is primarily because, in most cases, modern nations have had a bit of common history [of at least a century in most cases, counting in pre-independence times of national self-awareness] and an identity has formed at that level. Besides, many comparative culture studies today have happened at the national level and we have an wide body of business literature dealing with interactions between different national cultures.
  • Visualize our character like this schema above. Human nature is universal and inherited by all of us, like the hardware of our characters. Then, visualize the culture as our ‘operating system’, a set of rules learned by us from our society, which governs our interactions and the way we look at things. Obviously, the top layer is our personality, which is part inherited part learned, and varies from person to person.
  • Spend a few minutes on explaining each component. Values are broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others. They relate to various feelings with a positive and negative in it: it deals with issues like evil vs good, for example. An example could be the individual pursuit of wealth. In some cultures, wealth is good and a mark of success, so you don’t mind flaunting your $100,000 Gold watch; in other cultures, individual wealth is not to be shown off and sometimes, even a source of embarrassment. Rituals are socially essential collective activities. Shaking hands while greeting in Western cultures and bowing heads in Japanese, or folding palms in Indian culture would be examples. Heroes are people, real or imaginary, who embody cultural traits. Lord Rama, for example, is an Indian hero and displays many Indian traits, like commitment to family. The pioneers, the people who went West to search for Gold, is perennially American – individualist, materialist, adventurer. Churchill captured English imagination by remaining defiant under fire, human in his emotions and caustic in his humour. Symbols are gestures, pictures etc identified with a culture. National flags and football jerseys are good examples. Our practises are based on all four. The values are core and difficult to alter, and symbols are the most superficial.
  • There are a number of ways of looking at how national cultures vary from one another. Within the limited scope of this discussion, we shall only touch upon the three major thinkers in this domain : the American anthropologist and popular writer Edward Hall, the Dutch academician Geert Hofstede, and the Israeli thinker Shalom Schwartz. In the next few minutes, we shall touch upon the basic concepts here. Given that we are primarily interested in dealing with Americans, we shall refer American values and ways of life in the context of these models, and contrast it with Indians where appropriate.
  • Edward Hall is an anthropologist, who studied cultures for the American State department. The question in front of him was if the world admires American values so much, why are the Americans not so well loved. He left a significant body of literature and made significant contributions in the study of body language. However, for the context of this discussion, we need to touch upon two key ideas – his idea of context in communication and how he perceived various national cultures perceive time.
  • Some cultures rely on direct, spoken or written messages for information flow, whereas some other cultures depend on the listeners’ understanding of the context to communicate the information. This is what Edward Hall defines as High/ Low Context communication. For example, let’s say there is a difficult deadline and half of the team members are down sick. The project leader knows that there is no way the deadline could be met. Now, let’s imagine he is asked the question in a project meeting: Can you meet the deadline? In a low context culture, he will be expected to say ‘NO, because half the team is down and we can’t make it’. In most High Context cultures [like India] he will say – We shall try our best – making the implicit contextual assumption that people already know how difficult it is. Americans are low context, and Indians are usually high context. This is one of the major challenges in communication between the two cultures.
  • Time, again, is where we differ. The Americans treat time as a useable resource. Indians treat time as an environmental factor. So, in America, you don’t waste time, while in India, you wait for the right time. In America, it is almost one thing happening at a time, serially. In Asia, it is polychronic, many things happening at the same time. Most Americans find the Asian habit of carrying out multiple conversations at the same time distracting, annoying and amazing at the same time. They also regard Indian timekeeping abysmal. However, it will be good to know that Latinos, the Spaniards and the Mexicans, the Italians, share our polychronic concept of time.
  • Geert Hofstede studied culture at work in IBM’s offices across the world in late 1960s. He was using the observations made by sociologists Inkeles and Levinson about differences in culture, but his study was the first to compile country scores on various parameters. Hofstede’s study, which was later compiled into his seminal CULTURE’S CONSEQUENCES (1980) divided national cultures along five dimensions of behaviour. We would take a cursory look in the next few slides on various dimensions.
  • Power Distance is all about whether I expect my father to know more than me automatically. The societies where older age, greater wealth or social status, or senior position, automatically confers a certain unquestionable status on persons, they are high PDI societies. Americans are low PDI – one can see that from various movies where our jilted hero does not mind storming into his bosses chamber and blast him on his incompetence. Contrast that with the helplessness of a Salman Khan when he gets fired, pointlessly, in God Tusi Great Ho [or something else, he keeps getting fired anyway]. On a more serious note, this difference has enormous implications on management. American management models, like Management by Objective, expect the subordinates to behave ‘american’, negotiate with bosses about what targets are, and are not, acceptable. However, those models do not work very well in India as the targets here are given, not negotiated. This somewhat connects to the high context/low context story we just discussed. In fact, there is a positive correlation of some sort between high context and high power distance in Hofstede’s scale.
  • How much does the group, outside one’s immediate family, matters in the culture – this is what defines this scale. Most Western nations are quite individualistic and leading the pack is United States, the country of ultimate ‘solo’ man. India also appears quite high on individualism, because our world is often confined within our family. The contrast with Pakistan is staggering – India ranks 21 st among the 50 countries covered in Hofstede’s study while Pakistan, along with most of our Asian neighbours, is at the bottom, 48 th place to be exact. The reason is the all encompassing existence of family in our lives. But then, we are still very different from the other countries with high IDV scores – in most of those other nations, an individual is an individual; in India, an individual is me, my wife and children, my parents, my uncles and aunts, my grandparents, my cousins, my in-laws, my in-laws of in-laws and their parents and.. Did I leave anyone out?
  • We can come back to the $100,000 watch that we saw before. It matters more in some societies than others. This cultural difference explains many things, including why Americans are horrified about spending tax dollars on healthcare for the needy, while the Europeans can not imagine paying for healthcare and most countries have a state-funded, no questions asked healthcare system. Sort of explains how the Swedes live with their near 50% tax rates, where most public services are government provided and still do well. India is 21 st on the 50 country scale on masculinity, and that is somewhat near to the 15 th spot that United States has.
  • Some cultures believe – what is different is dangerous. Some others, like India and United States, seem to be able to live with it. No surprises that Pakistanis differed from us here – they are far less comfortable with uncertainty than we are.
  • This was not one of Hofstede’s original dimensions, but one that he added later, with cooperation from Michael Bond. Bond called this ‘Confucian Work Dynamism’ and approached the whole issue of cultural differences with a Chinese perspective. In India, we shall mostly belong to the Long Term end of the spectrum.
  • We touch upon Israeli psychologist Shalom Schwartz’s Seven Value types because this represents most recent research in the domain. This was also one of the most comprehensive, starting with 56 different value questions which was reduced to the final 7 which seem to definitely vary across national cultures. The importance of Schwartz’s model is that this is the other comparable model to Hofstede’s with an empirical base and country scores. The scores and value types often correspond with Hofstede’s and countries show a similar characteristic, reconfirming the idea of distinct national national cultures.
  • Communication Across Cultures

    1. 1. Understanding Cultural Differences Understanding Cultural Differences & How it May Affect Behaviour
    2. 2. What We Cover <ul><li>Meaning of Culture & Why it matters </li></ul><ul><li>How Culture Varies – The Dimensions </li></ul>
    3. 3. The Meaning of Culture <ul><li>“ Culture is one of the two most misunderstood words in English”. </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Raymond Williams </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>He never said which is the other one. </li></ul>
    4. 4. Definition of Culture <ul><li>The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. </li></ul><ul><li>– Geert Hofstede </li></ul>
    5. 5. Inherited Learned Inherited & Learned Universal Group Specific Person Specific Source : Hofstede (1991) Human Nature Culture Personality
    6. 6. Components of Culture Values Rituals Heroes Symbols Practises
    7. 7. Understanding Cultural Differences <ul><li>Models: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Edward Hall’s Approach (1976) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Hofstede’s Five Dimensions (1980) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Schwartz’s Seven Value Types (1994) </li></ul></ul>
    8. 8. Edward Hall’s Approach <ul><li>Contrasted cultures on the basis of Context, attitude towards Time, Space and Information Flow. </li></ul><ul><li>Key Idea: High Context/ Low Context communication. </li></ul><ul><li>Key Idea: Monochronic / Polychronic Time </li></ul>
    9. 9. Context in Communication <ul><li>High Context : Where a lot of information is coded and not spoken. ‘Not what is said, but what is meant’. Example: Arabs, Indians, East Asians, Southern Europeans. </li></ul><ul><li>Low Context : Where the information is contained in communication. ‘What you hear is what I mean’. Example: North Europeans, Americans. </li></ul>
    10. 10. The Question of Time <ul><li>Monochronic : Where time is treated as an object, which can be saved, wasted, used or spent. It is treated linearly, like a road, and the past is treated as lost. This is the North American/ European view of time. </li></ul><ul><li>Polychronic : Where one lives within time, and therefore can not save or waste it. More like air, you take it for granted. The Asian/ Indian view, perhaps. </li></ul>
    11. 11. Hofstede’s Dimensions <ul><li>Contrasted cultures on five dimensions: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Power Distance (PDI) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Individualism/ Collectivism (IDV) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Masculinity/ Femininity (MAS) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Long Term Orientation (LTO) </li></ul></ul>
    12. 12. Power Distance (PDI) <ul><li>Definition : The extent to which less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. </li></ul><ul><li>High Power Distance: Malaysia, Philippines, India, Brazil, France. </li></ul><ul><li>Low Power Distance: USA, Canada, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Austria. </li></ul>
    13. 13. Individualism/ Collectivism (IDV) <ul><li>Definition : People look after themselves and their immediate family only or people belong to in-groups who look after them in exchange for loyalty. </li></ul><ul><li>High Individualism: USA, UK, Canada, France, Spain, India. </li></ul><ul><li>High Collectivism: South Korea, Taiwan, Peru, Indonesia, Venezuela. </li></ul>
    14. 14. Masculinity/ Femininity (MAS) <ul><li>Definition : The dominant values in a masculine society are achievement and success, the dominant values in a feminine society are caring for others and quality of life. </li></ul><ul><li>Masculine: Japan, Italy, UK, USA, Australia, India. </li></ul><ul><li>Feminine: Iran, spain, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden. </li></ul>
    15. 15. Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) <ul><li>Definition : The extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity and try to avoid these situations. </li></ul><ul><li>High Avoidance: Greece, Portugal, Japan, France, Spain. </li></ul><ul><li>Low Avoidance: Canada, USA, India, Britain. </li></ul>
    16. 16. Long Term Orientation (LTO) <ul><li>Definition : The acceptance of change, perserverance, thrift and pursuit of peace of mind, as against here-and-now consumption and making the best of present opportunity. </li></ul><ul><li>Long Term: China, Most Asian cultures, Paddy farming cultures. </li></ul><ul><li>Short Term: United States, Britain, most hunter-gatherer cultures. </li></ul>
    17. 17. Schwartz’s Seven Value Types <ul><li>Recent research defining seven value types which differentiates cultures. </li></ul><ul><li>In Schwartz’s model, these seven values are: Conservatism , Intellectual and Affective Autonomy , Hierarchy , Mastery , Egalitarian Commitment & Harmony . </li></ul>
    18. 18. Conclusion: Understanding Differences <ul><li>National cultures vary significantly. </li></ul><ul><li>They affect our work behaviour and decide what works and what does not. </li></ul><ul><li>We need to learn actively about other cultures to be effective at work. </li></ul>