Communicate across cultures

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On a speaking tour several years ago, I traveled from the United Arab Emirates to Hong Kong via India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia – and it seemed to me that with each country, the public arrived later and later.

When I arrived in Jakarta, my pre-dinner speech was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. “Just ignore this ad,” I was advised. “We tell people to arrive here at seven o’clock, hoping they will arrive at eight o’clock. But just to be on the safe side, the speaker never turns on until nine o’clock.

Compare that to an experience I had in Toronto where my session was to be the opening address at 8:00 am. Wanting to check out the audiovisual equipment, I arrived an hour earlier, only to see a long line of people already standing outside the auditorium. Frantic at having misunderstood the program, I was relieved when the meeting planner assured me, “Don’t worry. You’re okay. We Canadians are just used to getting places early.

Here is the question: what was right – the more relaxed Indonesian concept of time or the Canadian view of speed?

Your answer, of course, depends on the cultural norms you use to judge – because different cultures relate to time in very different ways.

Some cultures view time sequentially – as a linear commodity to be “spent”, “saved” or “wasted”. Other cultures view time synchronously – as a constant flow to be experienced in the moment, and as a force that cannot be contained or controlled.

In sequential cultures (like North America, English, German, Swedish and Dutch) businessmen give full attention to one agenda item after another. In many other parts of the world, professionals regularly do multiple things at the same time. I once cashed a traveller’s check at a Panamanian bank where the cashier counted my money, spoke to a customer on the phone, and admired the baby in the arms of the woman behind me. For her, everything was going as usual.

The American concept of time as a commodity not only serves as the basis of a ‘time is money’ mentality, it can lead to a time fixation that plays into the hands of astute negotiators of other cultures. . One Japanese executive put it this way: “All we have to do is figure out when you have to leave the country – and, by the way, we are amused that you come with your return already booked. We are waiting just before your flight to present our offer to you. At that point, you are so eager to stick to your schedule that you will lose everything.

In synchronic cultures (including South America, southern Europe and Asia) the flow of time is seen as a kind of circle – with the past, present and future all linked. This perspective determines how organizations in these cultures approach deadlines, strategic thinking, investments, developing talent from within, and the concept of “long-term” planning.

Synchronic cultures use the past as a context in which to understand the present and prepare for the future. Every important relationship is a lasting bond that comes and goes over time. In these cultures, relationships are essential to doing business, and they are often seen as grossly unfair. do not fostering friends and relatives in business relationships.

When it comes to the concept of time (and all other cultural variations), what is appropriate and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. Think about the misunderstandings that can arise when one culture views being late for a meeting as poor planning or a sign of disrespect, while another culture views the insistence on punctuality as rude impatience. .

Culture is, fundamentally, a set of values ​​and rules of behavior shared by a group of people. Few of us are aware of our own cultural biases because the cultural imprint begins at a very young age. And while some of a culture’s knowledge, rules, beliefs, values, phobias, and anxieties are taught explicitly, most of the information is absorbed unconsciously.

The challenge of multinational communication has never been greater. Business organizations around the world have discovered that intercultural communication is an important topic, not only because of increasing globalization, but also because their national workforce is increasingly diverse, ethnically and culturally.

We are all individuals, and it is not guaranteed that two people from the same culture will respond in exactly the same way. However, generalizations are valid in that they provide clues to what you are most likely to encounter when dealing with members of a particular culture. Here are two more of those generalizations:

High context vs low context

In some cultures, personal ties and informal agreements are much more binding than any formal contract. In others, careful drafting of legal documents is seen as paramount. It all depends on whether this culture is high context or low context.

High context crops (Mediterranean, Slavic, Central European, Latin American, African, Arabic, Asian, American Indian) leave much of the message unspecified – to be understood through context, non-verbal cues and the between-the-line interpretation of what is actually said or written. On the other hand, low context cultures (most Germanic and English speaking countries) expect messages to be explicit and specific. The former are in search of meaning and understanding in what is do not said – in body language, in silences and pauses, and in relationships and empathy. These focus on sending and receiving specific messages directly and being specific in spoken or written words.

Affective vs. neutral

In international business practices, reason and emotion both play a role. Which of these dominates depends on whether we are affective (easily 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 affective cultures, people clearly show their feelings by laughing, smiling, grimacing, scowling, and sometimes crying, yelling, or walking out of the room.

This doesn’t mean that people in neutral cultures are cold or unresponsive, but in the course of normal business activities, neutral cultures are more careful to monitor the amount of emotion they display. Emotional reactions were rated least acceptable in Japan, Indonesia, UK, Norway, and the Netherlands, and most accepted in Italy, France, US, and Singapore.

Reason and emotion are part of all human communication. When we speak out, we look to others for confirmation of our ideas and feelings. If our approach is very emotional, we are looking for a direct emotional response: “I feel the same. If our approach is very neutral, we want an indirect response: “I agree with your thoughts on this.

When it comes to communication, what is appropriate and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. In reality, no culture is good or bad, better or worse, just different. I have given presentations in 32 countries and know that in today’s global business community, there is no better way to communicate. The key to intercultural success is to develop an interest, an understanding and a deep respect for differences.

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