LEARNING OBJECTIVESAfter studying this chapter, you will be able to do the following:Discuss the opportunities and challenges of intercultural communicationDefine culture, explain how it is learned, and define ethnocentrism and stereotypingExplain the importance of recognizing cultural variations and list eight categories of cultural differencesList four general guidelines for adapting to any business cultureIdentify seven steps you can take to improve your intercultural communication skills
Although the concept is often framed in terms of ethnic background, a broader and more useful definition of diversity includes all the characteristics and experiences that define each of us as individuals. As you will learn in this chapter, these characteristics and experiences can have a profound effect on the way businesspeople communicate.Intercultural communication is the process of sending and receiving messages between people whose cultural background could lead them to interpret verbal messages and nonverbal cues differently. Every attempt to send and receive messages is influenced by culture, so to communicate successfully, you will need a basic grasp of the cultural differences you may encounter and how you might handle them.
The chances are good that you’ll be working across international borders sometime in your career. Thousands of U.S. businesses depend on exports for significant portions of their revenues. Domestic markets are opening to worldwide competition as businesses of all sizes look for new growth opportunities outside their own countries. Every year, these companies export hundreds of billions of dollars worth of materials and merchandise, along with billions more in personal and professional services. If you work in one of these companies, you will need to communicate with a variety of people who speak languages other than English and who live in cultures quite different from what you’re used to.
Even if you never visit another country or transact business on a global scale, you will interact with colleagues from a variety of cultures with a wide range of characteristics and life experiences. Over the past few decades, many innovative companies have changed the way that they approach diversity, from seeing it as a legal requirement to seeing it as a strategic opportunity. Smart business leaders recognize the competitive advantages of a workforce that offers a broader spectrum of viewpoints and ideas, helps companies understand and identify with diverse markets, and enables companies to benefit from a wider range of employee talents.
Today’s increasingly diverse workforce encompasses a wide range of skills, traditions, backgrounds, experiences, outlooks, and attitudes toward work—all of which can affect employee behavior on the job. Supervisors face the challenge of communicating with diverse employees, motivating them, and fostering cooperation and harmony among them. Teams face the challenge of working together closely, and companies are challenged to coexist peacefully with business partners and with the community as a whole.Intercultural communication is much more complicated than simply matching language between senders and receivers. The meaning of words, the significance of gestures, the rules of human relationships—these and many other aspects of communication are defined by culture. Elements of human diversity can affect communication at every stage of the communication process. In particular, your instinct is to encode your message using the assumptions of your culture. However, members of your audience decode your message according to the assumptions of their culture. The greater the difference between cultures, the greater the chance for misunderstanding.This concludes our discussion of opportunities in a global marketplace, advantages of a diverse workforce, and challenges of intercultural communication as they apply to Understanding the Opportunities and Challenges of Communication in a Diverse World. The next section will cover Developing Cultural Competency.
Cultural competency involves appreciating cultural differences that affect communication. It also involves the ability to adjust one’s communication style to ensure that efforts to send and receive messages across cultural boundaries are successful. In other words, it requires a combination of attitude, knowledge, and skills.The good news is that you’re already an expert in the culture in which you grew up. You understand how your society works, how people are expected to communicate, the meanings of common gestures and facial expressions, and so on. The bad news is that because you’re such an expert in your own culture, your communication is largely automatic; that is, you rarely stop to think about the communication rules you’re following. An important step toward successful intercultural communication is becoming more aware of these rules and of the way they influence your communication.
Culture can be defined as a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behavior. Members of a given culture tend to have similar assumptions about how people should think, behave, and communicate. Furthermore, they all tend to act on those assumptions in much the same way. As you grow up in a culture, you are taught who you are and how best to function in that culture by the group’s members. Since you are often unaware of the influence of your own culture, your actions and reactions are essentially automatic. In addition to being automatic, established cultures tend to be coherent; that is, they are fairly logical and consistent throughout. Cultures also tend to be complete—they provide most of their members with most of the answers to life’s big questions.
Given the automatic influence of culture, people often conclude that their own culture or group is superior to other groups or cultures. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge all other groups according to your own group’s standards, behaviors, and customs. An even more extreme reaction is xenophobia, a fear of strangers and foreigners. Clearly, businesspeople who take these views will not interpret messages from other cultures correctly; neither are they likely to send successful messages.Stereotyping involves ascribing a wide range of generalized attributes to an individual on the basis of his or her membership in a particular culture or social group, without considering the individual’s unique characteristics. While ethnocentrism and xenophobia represent negative views of everyone in a particular group, stereotyping is more a matter of oversimplifying and failing to acknowledge individuality.
Those who want to show respect for others and communicate effectively in business need to adopt a more positive view of other cultures. Cultural pluralism is the practice of accepting multiple cultures on their own terms. To show respect for other people and to communicate effectively in business, do the following:Avoid assumptions. Do not assume that others will act the same way you do, operate from the same assumptions, or use language and symbols the same way you do. Avoid judgments. When people act differently, do not conclude that they are in error, that their way is invalid, or that their customs are inferior to your own.Acknowledge distinctions. Do not ignore differences between another person’s culture and your own.This concludes our discussion of understanding the concept of culture and overcoming ethnocentrism and stereotyping as those topics pertain to Developing Cultural Competency. The next section will cover Recognizing Variations in a Diverse World.
You don’t need to become an expert in the details of every culture in which you do business, but you do need to attain a basic level of cultural proficiency to ensure successful communication. You can start by recognizing and accommodating the following differences: cultural context, legal and ethical views, social customs, nonverbal signals, age, gender, religion, and abilities. All of these differences are covered in this section.
Every attempt at communication occurs within a cultural context, the mixture of traditions, expectations, and unwritten social rules that help convey meaning between members of the same culture. Cultures vary widely in the role that context plays in communication.In a high-context culture people rely less on the explicit content of the message and more on the context of nonverbal actions and environmental setting to convey meaning. In such cultures, as individuals grow up, they learn how to recognize situational cues (such as gestures and tone of voice) and how to respond as expected. Also, in a high-context culture, the primary role of communication is often building relationships, not exchanging information.In a low-context culture people rely more on the explicit content of the message and less on circumstances and cues to convey meaning. In other words, more of the conveyed meaning is encoded into the message itself.The different expectations of low-and high-context cultures can create friction and misunderstanding when people try to communicate across cultural boundaries.
Cultural context also influences legal and ethical behavior, which in turn can affect communication.As you conduct business around the world, you will find that both legal systems and ethical standards differ from culture to culture. Therefore, trying to make ethical choices across cultures can seem complicated, but you can keep your messages ethical by applying four basic principles: Actively seek mutual groundSend and receive messages without judgmentSend messages that are honestShow respect for cultural differences
Social behavior is guided by formal and informal rules that influence the overall behavior of most people in a society most of the time. In addition, social norms can vary from culture to culture in the following areas:Attitudes toward work and success. In the United States, for instance, a widespread view is that material comfort earned by individual effort is a sign of superiority and that people who work hard are better than those who don’t.Roles and status. Culture influences the roles that people play, including who communicates with whom, what they communicate, and in what way.Use of manners. What is polite in one culture may be rude in another. Concepts of time. People in low-context cultures see time as a way to plan the business day efficiently, viewing time as a limited resource. However, executives from high-context cultures often see the efficient use of time as being less important than building business relationships.Future orientation. Successful companies tend to have a strong future orientation, planning for and investing in the future, but national cultures around the world vary widely in this viewpoint.Openness and inclusiveness. Cultures vary on how open they are to accepting people from other cultures or those who don’t fit the prevailing norms within the culture. An unwillingness to accommodate others can range from outright exclusion to subtle pressures to conform to majority expectations.
In some cultures, youth is associated with strength, energy, possibilities, and freedom; however, age is associated with declining powers and a loss of respect and authority. In contrast, in cultures that value age and seniority, longevity earns respect and increasing power and freedom.In addition to cultural values associated with various life stages, the multiple generations within a culture present another dimension of diversity. Today’s workplaces can have three or even four generations working side by side. Each generation can bring particular strengths to the workplace. However, each of these generations has been shaped by dramatically different world events, social trends, and technological advances, so it is not surprising that they often have different values, expectations, and communication habits.
The perception of men and women in business varies from culture to culture, and these differences can affect communication efforts. In some cultures, men hold most or all positions of authority, and women are expected by many to play a more subservient role. However, as more women take on positions of greater responsibility, enlightened company leaders are making a point to examine past assumptions and practices. Whatever the culture, evidence suggests that men and women tend to have slightly different communication styles. Broadly speaking, men tend to emphasize content in their communication efforts, whereas women place a higher premium on relationship maintenance. As with every element of diversity, however, these generalizations do not apply to every person or every situation.
Religion in the workplace is a complex and contentious issue. As one of the most personal and influential aspects of life, religion brings potential for controversy in a work setting—as evidenced by a significant rise in the number of religious discrimination lawsuits. Some employees feel they should be able to express their beliefs in the workplace, but companies try to avoid situations in which openly expressed religious differences cause friction between employees or distract them from their responsibilities. As more companies work to establish inclusive workplaces, you can expect to see this issue being discussed at many companies in the coming years.
Colleagues and customers with disabilities that affect communication represent an important aspect of the diversity picture. People whose hearing, vision, cognitive ability, or physical ability is impaired can be at a significant disadvantage in today’s workplace. As with other elements of diversity, success starts with respect for individuals and sensitivity to differences. Employers can also invest in a variety of assistive technologies that help people with disabilities perform activities that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. The technologies include devices and systems that help workers communicate orally and visually, interact with computers and other equipment, and enjoy increased mobility.This concludes our discussion of the following topics as they apply to Recognizing Variations in a Diverse World: contextual differences, legal and ethical differences, social differences, nonverbal differences, age differences, gender differences, religious differences, and ability differences. The next section will cover Adapting to Other Business Cultures.
Whether you’re trying to work productively with members of another generation in your own office or with a business partner on the other side of the world, adapting your approach is essential to successful communication. This section offers general advice on adapting to any business culture and specific advice for professionals from other cultures on adapting to U.S. business culture.
Four general guidelines can help all business communicators improve their cultural competency:Become aware of your own biases. Successful intercultural communication requires more than just understanding the other party’s culture; you need to understand your own culture and the way it shapes your communication habits.Ignore the “Golden Rule.” You probably heard this growing up: “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” The problem with the Golden Rule is that it assumes other people want to be treated the same way you want to be treated. This is not always the case, particularly across cultural boundaries. The best approach: treat people the way they want to be treated.Exercise tolerance, flexibility, and respect. As IBM’s Ron Glover puts it, “To the greatest extent possible we try to manage our people and our practices in ways that are respectful of the core principles of any given country, organization, or culture.”Practice patience and maintain a sense of humor. Even the most committed and attuned business professionals can make mistakes during intercultural communication, so it is vital for all parties to be patient with one another. A sense of humor is a helpful asset as well, allowing people to move past awkward and embarrassing moments.
If you are a recent immigrant to the United States or grew up in a culture outside the U.S. mainstream, the following key points can help you understand business communication in this country:Individualism. U.S. culture expects individuals to succeed by their own efforts, and it rewards individual success. Even though teamwork is emphasized in many companies, competition between individuals is expected.Equality. To a greater degree than many other cultures, Americans believe that every person should be given the opportunity to pursue whatever dreams and goals he or she may have in life.Privacy and personal space. People in this country are accustomed to a fair amount of privacy, and this includes their “personal space” at work.Time and schedules. In the United States, businessmen and businesswomen value punctuality and the efficient use of time. For instance, meetings are expected to start and end at designated times.Religion. The United States does not have an official religion. Many different religions are practiced throughout the country, and people are expected to respect each other’s beliefs.Communication style. Communication tends to be direct and focused on content and transactions, not relationships or group harmony. This concludes our discussion of Adapting to Other Business Cultures. The next section will cover Improving Intercultural Communication Skills.
The better you are at intercultural communication, the more successful you will be in today’s business environment. However, communicating successfully from one culture to another requires a variety of skills. You can improve your intercultural skills throughout your career. Begin now by studying other cultures and languages, respecting preferences for communication styles, learning to write and speak clearly, listening carefully, knowing when to use interpreters and translators, and helping others adapt to your culture.
Effectively adapting your communication efforts to another culture requires not only knowledge about the culture but also both the ability and the motivation to change your personal habits as needed. Fortunately, you do not need to learn about the whole world all at once. Even a small amount of research and practice will help you get through many business situations. Most people respond positively to honest effort and good intentions, and many business associates will help you along if you show an interest in learning more about their cultures. You will gradually accumulate knowledge, which will help you feel comfortable and be effective in a wide range of business situations. Numerous websites and books offer advice on traveling to and working in specific cultures. Also, try to sample newspapers, magazines, and even the music and movies of another country.
As commerce continues to globalize, the demand for multilingual communicators also continues to grow. The ability to communicate in more than one language can make you a more competitive job candidate and open up a wider variety of career opportunities. Even if your colleagues or customers in another country do speak your language, it’s worth the time and energy to learn common phrases in their language. Learning the basics not only helps you get through everyday business and social situations but also demonstrates your commitment to the business relationship. Finally, do not assume that two countries speaking the same language speak it the same way. For example, it is often said that the United States and the United Kingdom are two countries divided by a common language.
Communication style—including the level of directness, the degree of formality, media preferences, and other factors—varies widely from culture to culture. Knowing what your communication partners expect can help you adapt to their particular styles. Once again, watching and learning are the best ways to improve your skills.
Writing clearly is always important, of course, but it is essential when you are writing to people whose first language is not English. Follow these recommendations to make sure your message can be understood:Choose words carefullyBe brief, using simple sentences and short paragraphsUse plenty of transitionsAddress international correspondence properlyCite numbers and dates carefullyAvoid slang, idiomatic phrases, and business jargonAvoid humor and other references to popular cultureMeet the expectations of your audience
Languages vary considerably in the significance of tone, pitch, speed, and volume. To ensure successful conversations between parties who speak different languages, both speakers and listeners need to make accommodations. The following guidelines can help you to be a more effective speaker during intercultural conversations: (1) speak slowly and clearly; (2) do not rephrase until it is obviously necessary; (3) look for and ask for feedback to make sure your message is getting through; (4) do not talk down to the other person by over-enunciating words or oversimplifying sentences; and (5) at the end of the conversation, double check to make sure you and the listener agree on what has been said and decided.As a listener, you will need some practice to get a sense of vocal patterns. The key is simply to accept what you hear first, without jumping to conclusions about meaning or motivation. Let other people finish what they have to say. If you interrupt, you may miss something important. You will also show a lack of respect. If you do not understand a comment, ask the person to repeat it. Any momentary awkwardness you might feel in asking for extra help is less important than the risk of unsuccessful communication.
You may encounter business situations that require using an interpreter (for spoken communication) or a translator (for written communication). Interpreters and translators can be expensive, but skilled professionals provide invaluable assistance for communicating in other cultural contexts. Keeping up with current language usage in a given country or culture is also critical in order to avoid embarrassing blunders.The time and cost required for professional translation has encouraged the development of machine translation, which is any form of computerized intelligence used to translate one language to another. Although none of these tools can promise translation quality on a par with human translators, they can be quite useful with individual words and short phrases, and they provide the overall gist of a message.
Everyone can contribute to successful intercultural communication. Whether a younger person is unaccustomed to the formalities of a large corporation or a colleague from another country is working on a team with you, look for opportunities to help people fit in and adapt their communication style. Chances are that while you are helping, you will learn something about the other person’s culture and language, too.You can also take steps to simplify the communication process. For example, oral communication in a second language is usually more difficult than written forms, so instead of asking a foreign colleague to provide information in a conference call, you could ask for a written response instead of or in addition to the live conversation.This concludes our discussion of the following topics as they relate to Improving Intercultural Communication Skills: studying other cultures and languages; respecting preferences for communication style; writing clearly; speaking and listening carefully; using interpreters, translators, and translation software; and helping others adapt to your culture. Our presentation will close with a review of this chapter’s learning objectives.