Globalisation : Keying in to Cultural Codes : How to Do Business Overseas

Dr. Joseph Sommerville helps professionals create more persuasive messages. He is the President of Peak Communication Performance, a Houston-based firm working worldwide to help professionals develop skills in strategic communication.

Check out his website www.peakcp.com or contact him by e-mail Sommerville@PeakCP.com


The world gets smaller and smaller everyday. Or does it ? As advances in communications technology continue to shrink time and distance between countries, we have good reason to believe that the "global village" predicted several decades ago has finally arrived. The Internet makes it possible to send and retrieve information around the globe within a few minutes. Wireless telephones facilitate the creation of "virtual offices." Satellites can beam programs to even the most remote areas. However, as futurist John Naisbitt points out in his book Global Paradox, fifty-one countries joined the UN when it was founded in 1945. Today, there are 191 countries. What this means is that the world today is an even more fragmented place. When the Soviet Union dissolved, several smaller countries were formed to preserve their own l anguage, their own religion and their own customs--in short, their own culture. Naisbitt predicts the trend will continue in other countries well into the next century. Rather than moving closer to a common culture, smaller more independent countries will assert and cling to their own cultures.

Businesses setting up operations overseas should not overlook the importance of this point. Before such a move businesses will consider the target country's infrastructure, manufacturing base, labor costs, legal system, and accounting practices. They usually spend tremendous time and effort gathering data, doing market research, filing legal applications and establishing a base of operations. They must commit limited resources in the hopes the effort will pay off. In addition, sending staff overseas demands a large investment in personnel. There are travel expenses, overseas allowances, the costs of establishing a new household and training costs. If staff is unable to make the necessary cultural adjustment, repatriation may be the only option. When this happens, the initial investment is lost, along with the expenses of repatriation and the costs associated with sending replacement staff. Case studies have shown that the personnel expenses involved with an unsuccessful overseas assignment can easily exceed $200,000. In addition to the money that is wasted, time is wasted. Operations are slowed down. Worse still, relationships with those in the target culture may be soured.

These problems of adjustment and doing business in another culture could often be prevented, but one of the most important factors in any regionalization or globalization effort is often neglected-- success in cross-cultural communication. In addition to the key role communication plays in managing, negotiating, leading and developing the business overseas, it is probably the single most important factor in determining how successful staff will be in their assignments. Therefore, it is a sound business principle to train those going on overseas assignments with the necessary cross-cultural skills.

The first step in communicating effectively across cultures is to become more aware of our own communicative practices. Because we spend so much time communicating, we pay little attention to the actual process. If we can better understand it, seeing where misunderstanding occurs when we deal with people from different cultures will be much easier.

At the most basic level, the process of communication involves a person who encodes a message, which is sent through a channel and is in turn decoded by another person. No two people encode and decode messages in exactly the same way even within the same culture. We are all unique individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. Language, customs, past experiences in other cultures, religion, ethnicity, gender, education and nonverbal signals are all factors that influence how messages are coded. The process becomes even more complex when dealing with another culture because the factors used to encode and decode messages are emphasized differently. We can think of these factors as the cultural framework messages are filtered through whenever they are encoded or decoded. While it is impossible to list out all the factors that make up this framework, we can look at four in particular that are often at the root of problems in cross-cultural exchanges: Language, Face, Topics, and Formality.

Ideally, you will be fluent in the target country's language. However, the necessary time and the steep learning curves associated with adult language learners mean that intensive language training isn't always a viable option. But problems can occur even when people are speaking the same language. For example, what we make of certain words varies widely within our own cultures, so it is no surprise that it might vary even more widely among different cultures.

Renowned anthropologist and cross-cultural expert Professor Edward Hall has characterized the extent to which cultures rely on language as high-context and low-context. Low-context cultures rely primarily on language to interpret messages. High-context cultures rely on personal relationships, status, and previous communication to encode and decode messages. Much is understood in these cultures implicitly. Because those in low-context cultures are unused to relying on such non-verbal factors to interpret messages, misunderstanding can occur.

Low-context cultures include America, Germany and Switzerland. Because people from these cultures rely on words to convey meaning, they also tend to be very direct. Such directness is valued in these cultures. People say what they mean. Contracts are usually very detailed. Questions and answers are explicit. Problems in cross-cultural communication occur because what is meant to be communicating clearly in the low-context culture can be seen to be rude in the high-context culture. If you are from a high-context culture, you must remember that because so much emphasis is placed on the words one uses, language choice is critical. To help avoid misunderstanding:

Avoid Relative Language

Relative language means that certain words have meaning only within specific contexts. Words such as "many," "few," "soon," "late" are only meaningful within the context of the persons who are using them. For example, what is "expensive" to one person may be no great expense to another. What one person means by "costly" differs from that of another. If you use specific figures and measurements, both parties will at least understand the numbers that are involved. Each may interpret those numbers differently, but you will have a common frame of reference.

Avoid "Gendered" Language

Instead of using "salesman" or "saleswoman" say "sales agent or representative." For some cultures, using the word "girl" in reference to a female is considered derogatory or demeaning. It often doesn't matter that you didn't intend to convey such a meaning. It is better not to risk offending someone for whom this is a sensitive issue.

Avoid Directive Language

While the sentence "You will report to the personnel office at 11:00" may be an attempt at clarity by the writer, those from low-context cultures could be easily offended by such language because it is seen as impolite. Much better is the sentence "Please report to the personnel office at 11:00."

Remember that language is only one of the factors that goes into encoding a message. A second factor is "face." Face can be defined as the identity or personality we project to others. While this is a familiar concept to most Asian cultures, it is not well understood in most Western cultures. Consequently, it often causes problems in communication. For example, many Western cultures find it admirable for a person to admit he or she has made a mistake. They see it as "owning up" to the problem. However, members of cultures who place much importance on face may be reluctant to admit a mistake. To avoid such an admission, people may try to put the blame elsewhere, or deny they've said something. People from less face-conscious cultures see this as dishonest or an attempt to evade responsibility. In any interaction, there is both a task dimension and a relational dimension. Face-conscious cultures usually emphasize the relational dimension. This can frustrate members of other cultures because they think too little attention is being paid to the task. To facilitate cross-cultural understanding:

  • Recognize that face saving may be someone's primary goal during an interaction. When you can't seem to make progress or if someone seems obstinate try to think about any face considerations that may be impeding communication and deal with them.
  • Don't criticize a subordinate's work in front of others. The person will lose face in the group. Also, face conscious cultures have difficulty separating the person from the issue. Criticism of someone's work is often seen as criticism of that person.
  • Try to think of ways for people to "save" face. For example, rather than trying to blame someone for a mistake or find fault with a decision, suggest that a misunderstanding or miscommunication occurred. Collaborate on finding ways to solve the problem. Focus less on proving you are correct and more on how to get the job done.

A third factor that affects how people encode messages is what constitutes acceptable topics of conversation. Cultures differ in what they consider private and public information. For example, Americans consider personal information such as age, religion, marital status and salary to be private. This is often true where a high value is placed on individualism. People in these cultures often feel uncomfortable sharing this information about themselves with someone they have just met. For many Asian cultures however, such requests for information reflect a genuine interest in the person. They aren't trying to pry, but to be friendly. To avoid misunderstanding:

  • Recognize that some people will be uncomfortable sharing personal information with someone they have just met. If you are meeting the person for the first time, begin with impersonal topics such as the weather, sports, travel or food. Move to personal questions only gradually after you have established a relationship with the person.
  • If you are asked personal questions, recognize that it is most likely an attempt to be friendly. Don't be put off, and try not to show your discomfort with such questions.
  • If you want to ask questions about a country's politics or religions be sure to do so in a way that indicates you are interested in learning more about the culture. Avoid making the question sound as if you are challenging beliefs or systems of government. Avoid commenting on the country's political leaders.
  • In most cases, humor translates poorly across cultures. Humor depends on shared knowledge, beliefs and common sets of experiences. It is also difficult to know what are acceptable topics for humor in different cultures.

A fourth factor in the cultural framework is formality. The level of formality people find acceptable and comfortable in their interactions with others differs among cultures. American, New Zealand and Australian cultures are generally informal. As an example, they usually do not mind being addressed by their first name. It is not uncommon for even students to address their university lecturers by their first name rather than by "Dr." or "Professor." Don't assume however, that all Western cultures are informal. Germans for example, use titles extensively. This use of titles and honorifics is essential in formal cultures. Much significance is attached to ceremony, appearance and protocol. When people encode messages, they must make decisions about what level of formality is appropriate. Those decoding the message will also make decisions about the appropriateness. You can easily see where problems could arise. For example, in an attempt to be friendly, someone from an informal culture addresses someone from a formal culture by his or her given name. It is interpreted as a sign of disrespect. To be safe:

  • Assume that the level of formality is high until someone tells you otherwise. When in doubt, use the title with the family name rather than someone's given name. Ask the person how he or she would like to be addressed. Even some people from informal cultures are offended when someone uses their given name when meeting for the first time.
  • If someone seems more comfortable addressing you by your title, don't urge him or her to address you informally. An insistence to use the familiar form of address may embarrass the person.

Use the cultural framework above to determine the characteristics of the culture you are in and adjust. Because we are so comfortable communicating in our own culture, these four factors often seem like second nature to us. But when communicating cross-culturally, the different emphasis placed on these factors is often at the root of misunderstanding. Remember also that when thinking about other cultures, you are stereotyping and stereotypes may be true or false. There will be differences among individuals within those cultures and ethically, you should always treat someone as an individual. You can prepare yourself for cross-cultural understanding by being willing to suspend judgments of better or worse about the other culture. You don't have to agree with the ways things are done in other cultures, nor do you have to decide things are better or worse. Recognize that they are different and you can avoid much of the pain, costs, and embarrassment of miscommunicating across cultures.


© Copyright Joseph Sommerville 2004

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