Intercultural Communication


Intercultural communication is quite simply the process of communication between individuals from different cultures. To understand intercultural communication requires an accurate perception of what is conveyed in the verbal mode, as well as what is non-verbal . Beliefs and attitudes about a person from another culture can often be communicated through behaviour, even when nothing has been verbalized. Thus, managers can communicate that they hold a prejudice against a person from a specific culture, even when they have been at great pains to converse courteously.

There are two aspects to communication with global managers. Global managers might share similar values regarding work ethics and professionalism . Hence, communication at the workplace may not pose a problem. On the other hand, the cultural underpinnings of communication may manifest themselves when relationships at the personal level are attempted. And of course, skills in intercultural communication become of the essence when, one, expatriates attempt to integrate into a foreign culture, and two, a corporation has to operate in a foreign culture and market its products there.

That contrasting patterns of communication can exist across different cultures is made manifest in Hall's model (1987) of culturally distinct societies . Hall classified societies into two distinctive groups: highcontext societies, and low-context societies. The United States is a typical example of a low-context society, while Japan is an example of a high-context society. According to Hall, low-context societies are characterized by:

  • heterogeneity;

  • high social mobility;

  • high job mobility;

  • short- term relationships;

  • insiders and outsiders being not closely distinguished.

High-context societies are characterized by:

  • homogeneity;

  • little social mobility;

  • little job mobility;

  • long-term relationships;

  • insiders and outsiders being clearly distinguished.

Hall advises people who live in low-context societies to engage in explicit communication. This is because the nature of those societies precludes the possibility of widely shared meanings. On the other hand, people in high-context societies habitually engage in implicit communication. Homogeneous, almost standardized, patterns of communication exist. Therefore, people from within a high-context society are able to communicate without being misunderstood. By the same token, people from other cultures have to master the communication patterns of a highcontext society if they want to be assimilated or accepted there.

Ferraro (2001), while examining the contrasts between low-context and high-context countries , highlights the differences in communication patterns from another angle. Low-context societies are purported to place a lot of emphasis on words. In high-context societies, people are more sensitive to contextual cues, suggestions and nuances .

Quite a lot of research has been devoted to contrasting different patterns of communication based on culture. Most of these studies, like Ferraro's cited above, have concentrated on contrasts. The results make fascinating reading because of the stark nature of the contrast. Edward T. Hall's article 'The silent language in overseas business' (1960) is a case in point. In this piece, Hall notes that American managers will attend to an important and valued client immediately that client comes to their office. In Hispanic countries by contrast, an important client who finds himself waiting outside a manager's office need not take offence: Hispanics are purported to be so people-oriented that they do not cut short a meeting just to ensure that they are able to stick to their appointment schedule. Arabs are purported to be as people-oriented as Hispanics. Thus Hall has presented two starkly contrasting cultures: US people who do not attach deep values to relationships, and therefore make friends and drop friends rapidly and with ease, contrasted with the Arabs and Hispanics, who place a premium on relationships and lifelong friendships. Other aspects of contrast between Americans on the one hand, and Hispanics and Arabs on the other, which are found at different places in Hall's piece, are:

  1. US managers appraise the importance of managers by comparing the size of their office to that of other managers in the company. The CEO has the best and biggest office, and so on down the pecking order. In the United States, from middle management levels upwards, people are accustomed to having considerable space around themselves. By contrast, in Arab and Hispanic countries people like to work in close proximity to each other. There is little space around a person. Often, a man might lay his hand on another man, or a woman might lay her hand on another woman .

  2. US managers are materialistic and money-minded. People's status is reflected by their material possessions. The loyalty of managers is bought by giving them high salaries. By contrast, Arab managers look not for material possessions, but for family and friendship: relationships. They may possess material wealth, but would not like to be assessed on the basis of material possessions alone. They would like to be known and valued as persons as well.

  3. US managers conduct business on the basis of written agreements and contracts. However, they are open to breaking agreements when it suits them, so they take legal recourse more frequently than in many other cultures. By contrast, for Arabs, keeping a word that has been given is a matter of honour and as binding as a written agreement. When recourse is taken to a written agreement, both Arabs and Hispanics treat the agreement as sacrosanct. Informal agreements are amenable to negotiation a priori .

  4. US managers state a deadline against which urgent and important work should be completed. They are prone to feeling insulted if they are made to wait after an appointment has been made. Delay in attending to a business matter is always interpreted as lack of interest. By contrast, in Arab and Hispanic countries, relationships determine how time should be spent. More important people get their work done first, as do people with whom the manager has a valued, close relationship. Attempts to impose deadlines are viewed as being overly demanding and pushy.

Managers interviewed for this book have mixed reactions to studies that present communication patterns in terms of starkly contrasted cultural clusters. Most believe that such clusters tend to be exaggerated caricatures which can be misleading if taken as the truth. For example, an Arab taxi driver's notion of what constitutes an agreement between himself and a passenger cannot be extrapolated to predict the likely behaviour of an Arab working for a global corporation. In fact, many have found that senior Arab managers follow the US notion of time in their professional lives. Likewise, in the United States as in Arab and Hispanic countries, there are managers who perceive relationships as important. After all, it is in the United States that the typology that characterizes managers as either task-oriented or relationship-oriented was developed. And global managers interviewed for this book testify that there are US managers who like to cultivate and nurture relationships.

Different cultures may be distinguished by different communication patterns to greater or lesser degrees. There is an ideal type to which a global manager can aspire. According to this type, intercultural communication ensues between two individuals based on a mutual understanding of cultural similarities and differences.

Another example of a factor that can lead to contrast in communication patterns across cultures is language. Although English is often perceived as the international language in the world of business, proficiency in that language varies significantly across countries. Additionally, even if global managers are conversant with English, expatriates residing in continental Europe need to know the local language, to have a life outside the workplace. Schneider and Barsoux (1997) observe how a Franco-Swedish team working together decided to adopt English as the working language. However, the French managers' fluency with English was considerably less than the Swedes'. Hence the French were ill at ease when communicating with the Swedes, and their relationship with them was hampered by the language factor.

The following are aids that facilitate the process of intercultural communication.

Intercultural training

In layman's parlance, intercultural training involves a person being educated about the rules that govern communication, interaction and behaviour in another culture. The awareness and insights are then compared against the rules that govern the person's own communication, interaction and behaviour. The similarities and differences are noted and appreciated.

Through intercultural training, managers can learn the basic communication rules of a foreign culture, such as when to speak and to whom, and how others may be addressed. At the same time, they can learn when not to speak and what sort of mannerisms would be inappropriate. In many Asian countries, Korea being a typical example, people are careful not to disagree openly with a person much older in age. So a global manager in Korea would have to be extremely diplomatic in dealing with older Koreans.

Research shows that many employees of multinational companies would like to see changes in the management styles of expatriates, especially in the areas of leadership, decision making, communication and group work. It is possible that lack of awareness about effective management styles in other cultures causes expatriates to commit errors of omission and commission. Even within Europe, a continent that exhibits more internal homogeneity than Asia for instance, considerable disparity exists in management styles. Reihlen (2001) has opined that the following European countries are distinguished by the extra emphasis that they place on certain management practices. France is characterized by a propensity for engaging in a bureaucratic form of management. In Great Britain, considerable importance is attached to managers exhibiting social skills, such as politeness and good manners. German management is purported to be differentiated by a high degree of professionalism, requiring considerable self-discipline and self-programming. Italian managers often use the metaphor of the family to describe their company. Thus in Italy, personal contacts are important for building a familial network of work relations. In Sweden, the management style is tilted towards being democratic and consensus-oriented.

We recommend as particularly useful by way of intercultural training the attempt to get managers to see themselves as individuals from various other cultures see them. In this type of workshop, participants are assigned various tasks and then people from different cultures observe their behaviour. These participants comprise managers from different cultures, who have to interact with each other to complete their tasks . The observation can be done through one-way glass to reduce selfconsciousness among participants. Feedback is then given to the participants by the observers in turn . Thus, an aspiring global manager can get feedback from an Arab as to the quirks in his behaviour which would not find favour with Arabs, feedback from a Swiss as to what aspects of his behaviour might annoy a Swiss, and so on. To be palatable the feedback must include positive aspects as well. The intention of the feedback, both positive and negative, is to heighten the cultural sensitivity of participants and provide them with opportunities to both learn and unlearn. Various levels of feedback can be given. For instance, managers who have little exposure to other cultures would be given the preliminary level of feedback.

Even primitive attempts at imparting cultural sensitivity to transnational managers have proved fruitful. A Japanese company that had bought out an Australian firm recently undertook a rudimentary cultural sensitization effort directed at both its Japanese and Australian managers, as follows . A consultant took a group of Japanese and Australian managers to the Queensland rainforest for four days. The managers had to jointly master an obstacle course. They performed tasks that might have been straight out of the Tarzan School of Management or the Spiderman School of Management. Inter alia, the managers had to walk across swaying rope bridges 40 feet above the ground. They also had to help one another climb down those bridges using ropes . The nights were spent with the Australians talking about the Australian way of doing business. The Japanese felt that this programme, even though it was essentially Outward Bound in nature, prepared them a little for their work life ahead. And the channels of communication between the two groups of managers opened.

Intercultural training for managers should also include education about what constitutes effective management in other cultures. A manager may learn about another country's customs and heritage, and therefore might be able to function as an individual there without too much difficulty. It must be emphasized that intercultural training does not end with an initial orientation. On the contrary, it is an ongoing, continuous effort that can never end.

Often, there may be a need to demonstrate performance in a foreign culture. The global managers interviewed for this book revealed that they were usually under pressure to show that they were being productive. Since they were foreigners, their work behaviour was constantly under close scrutiny. There is no research yet about how managers should present themselves when trying to obtain acceptance for their professionalism in a new culture. However, insights may be obtained by delving into work done in the area of newcomers and women trying to make an impact in their work environment. Based on the work of Haslett, Geis and Carter (1992), and extending their conclusions to managers operating in a new culture, it is recommended that instead of letting work speak for itself, managers should draw co-workers ' attention to their achievements in non- threatening ways.

Language training

The possibilities for communication and interactions are considerably enhanced if managers are proficient in the language of the culture in which they operate. An effective global manager is well versed in at least two languages, if not three. It may be true that English is a widely spoken language in the business world. However, it is also true that it is spoken by only a small percentage of the world's population. Paul Orleman records that the global training and development team at Rh ne-Poulene Rorer, a French-US joint venture in pharmaceuticals , explicitly takes into account that all team members may not be equally proficient in English. One of the rules established is that team members have to speak slowly. Additionally, if individuals become too frustrated trying to make a point in English, they are welcome to revert to their preferred language. Translation is then arranged.

Knowledge of, and some fluency in, a local language enable a manager to understand communication patterns as they exist in the new culture. Some people have argued that it is not really necessary for expatriates to learn the language of the country they are assigned to, since they will not be residing there for long. However, language proficiency is a long-term asset, since expatriates will find opportunities to use their language skills professionally, even after returning to their own country. After all, the world is getting smaller on a continuous basis, especially in the world of multinational corporations. When Jaguar introduced an in-company German language training facility for its employees, its sales in West Germany the following year jumped a dramatic 60 per cent (as reported by the Economist ), despite stiff competition from rivals Mercedes and BMW. An Asian global manager interviewed for this book recalls how he had been unable to live a full life in Germany because of his inability to speak German. However, he started taking lessons immediately on arrival, and after a year could speak a little German. His experience was that after learning to speak a little German, he felt as if he had been handed the keys to that country. He could now chat a little to people in bars and in shops , and began to feel much more at home than would otherwise have been the case.

Other things being equal, clients opt for doing business with the company that has managers conversant with the language spoken in the clients ' country. For this reason, a few global companies are considering making mastery of an international language other than English a mandatory requirement for promotion to senior levels. And before they send a group of managers to a new country, they want at least half those managers to have a working knowledge of the language spoken in that country.

Culture-specificity versus pan-culturalism

Global managers interviewed for this book are united in their opinion that the communication mode that works for them is neither culturespecific nor pan-cultural. In other words, they do not believe that a single, universal approach to communication, irrespective of culture, is appropriate. On the other hand, they do not believe it is necessary to go completely native, and adopt the entire gamut of communication mannerisms of another culture. What is recommended is an appropriate blend of both approaches. In some situations, it may be necessary to adopt the host culture's norms of communication more vigorously than in others, especially when interacting with persons typical of that culture. For instance, adopting local ways of communicating in public places may be required in Arab countries, especially in the case of different gender interactions.

At the same time, the communication patterns of other people are not set against the scale of a global manager's own cultural background. This type of an approach has been termed ethnorelativism by Buoyant (1991). Ethnorelativism maintains that 'cultures can only be understood relative to one another; there is no absolute standard of rightness or goodness that can be applied to cultural behaviour; cultural difference is neither good or bad; it is just different'.

Additionally, global managers may like to become attuned to experiencing more than one culture simultaneously . This is possible because in any country there can be more than one ethnic group. Also, even in a foreign country, a multinational corporation may have expatriate groups from third and fourth countries. In any event, a global manager assigned to a new country would have to adjust to a new corporate culture, as well as to life in a new national culture. Thus, global managers need to be sensitive and pick up cues suggesting cultural differences, be they ethnic , corporate or functional.

Communication infrastructure

A considerable amount of the communication engaged in by global managers involves the use of modern technological systems. Hence, corporations interested in transnational operations invest heavily in the physical infrastructure necessary for global communication. Modern communication systems range from e-mail to videoconferencing. High-performance companies who have invested in modern methods of communication also have managers who have mastered the skills required to be on top of global communication. 3Com's managers have learnt how to make their transnational teleconferencing more efficient and successful through the following means: speaking louder, more clearly and slowly; using extensions of phone speakers so that everybody participating can hear equally loudly; being proficient at describing materials, situations, events and people; and involving people by soliciting their opinions . Sophisticated teleconferencing and videoconferencing facilities allow many managers from anywhere in the world to enter a discussion in a very natural way. Managers can even listen to minutes of what has transpired, if they enter a discussion late.

One system used by some global companies for this purpose is called Meeting Place. A practical problem faced by companies when teleconferencing and videoconferencing is timing. A conference scheduled for the morning in one part of the world will take place in the afternoon in another part, evening in a third part, and an inconvenient time of the night in yet another part. Many global companies have addressed this problem by rotating the timing, so the inconvenient timings are shared among their various locations. A further ingredient for the effective use of communication technology by global companies, suggested by O'HaraDevereaux and Johansen (1994), is that managers at all locations have equal access to the modes of communication used by that global company.




Intercultural Management
Intercultural Management: MBA Masterclass (MBA Masterclass Series)
ISBN: 0749435828
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 98
Authors: Nina Jacob

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