The barriers to communicating across cultures must be recognized and managed. Be aware of all the pitfalls of communication so that you avoid sending or receiving the wrong messages, and always try to see other people’s points of view.
It is easy to misinterpret someone’s behaviour by assuming that they share our understanding of it. For example, many Westerners interpret direct eye contact during conversation as a sign of sincerity, whereas in Asian cultures, a lowering of the eyes communicates respectful deference. The Asian may consider the Westerner’s behaviour as aggressive, even hostile, while the Westerner sees the Asian’s behaviour as insincere. The result – instant distrust between the parties.
Reading Body Language
Along with eye contact, body movement (facial expressions, gestures, handshakes, bows, and posture) is an important form of non-verbal communication. People from all cultures use their bodies to reinforce the meaning of what they say, to communicate something that they have not said, or even to oppose what they are saying. Be aware of your body language and learn about the body language used in other cultures. For example, pointing a finger to emphasize a point can be seen as rude, rather than emphatic, in some Asian cultures.
Making the standards of one’s own group – what is considered right, reasonable, and rational – the standards for the rest of the world, is known as ethnocentrism. It is usually accompanied by feelings of superiority. Everyone experiences ethnocentric feelings. Acknowledge them for what they are: destructive responses to the unfamiliar. Stay constructive and try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Ask yourself: “What is causing such a strong reaction in me?” and “Am I being objective?” Look for what is interesting and valuable in the way the other person sees things.
Recognizing Gender Issues
It is widely thought that women face more prejudice than men in the international workplace. In fact, many women report a “halo effect” when working in some male-dominated cultures. The men recognize that women managers are rare, and so think those that do exist must be outstanding. However, remember that some cultures demarcate strongly between male and female roles and this can make it difficult for women to succeed.
Points to Remember
- Keep your language simple and present only one idea at a time.
- If you do not understand a point, do not pretend that you do.
- Be prepared to ask questions.
- If you make a telephone call, follow it up with an e-mail.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
Using Clear Language
The key to communication is to put yourself in your reader’s or listener’s place, while paying attention to some basics. Be careful to avoid slang, jargon, acronyms, buzzwords, cliches, and colloquialisms. Make sure that you are literal and specific; vague, abstract language will confuse and frustrate your customer or colleague. Provide adequate contextual information. Do not simply count on others knowing what you mean.
Women Working Globally
Women working on an assignment in a different culture to their own can be faced with a variety of challenges. There are ways to help overcome any potential difficulties:
- Find a consultant who can brief you on values and norms of behaviour.
- Display professionalism in how you dress and respect local customs.
- Be very well prepared (more than your male colleagues) and make your presentations direct, with few qualifiers.
- Demonstrate your decision-making power and authority.
- Do not take male-dominated cultures personally or react to them by becoming aggressive.
A general rule in successful communication is to stay clear of subjects such as sex, politics, and religion until trust is established. Initially, discuss neutral topics like your journey, the weather, and holidays. Wait until you know someone better before talking about families. Take your cue from them as to when this might be appropriate. A sense of humour enables you to put your cultural mistakes into perspective. However, beware: jokes rarely translate well, because they often rely on local knowledge.
Stereotypes are relatively fixed generalizations made about others and they leave little room for identifying and adapting to individual differences. Stereotypes can be negative (“all … are lazy”) or positive (“all … are clever”). Both types are empty statements with no value. One of the most important tasks facing any global manager is to examine your, largely unconscious, stereotypes. Any generalizations that you do make must be very tentative and open to change. Keep in mind that you do not interact with a whole culture, but with individuals from within it.