There are many different definitions of ‘culture’. The most efficient definitions state that it includes outward manifestations as well as a set of underlying beliefs and values shared by a group of people. These beliefs and values are not easy to observe and therefore may cause problems when people from one cultural group communicate with those from another. Values are fundamental and basic and include such areas as the difference between what is considered to be right and what is considered to be wrong.
Problems and breakdowns in business communication can occur due to lack of understanding or knowledge of other cultures. They also occur because we fail to realise that we judge other people through our own cultural “lens”. Because values are so basic, we assume that they are universal, but they are not. Offence is often caused by lack of time spent on building a good relationship, impatience with procedures that are different from our own, offensive body language, and linguistic misunderstandings.
Before considering other cultures, it is essential to understand our own cultural values and how these might be perceived by people from other cultures. Our values affect the way in which we approach business and this may be very different from other approaches. It can help us to communicate better if we understand our own values as well as those of others.
It is important to have flexible models of other cultures. They should be flexible because people are not only affected by national culture but by regional, ethnic, religious, personal and company backgrounds, etc. Not everyone from the same culture will think or behave in the same way!
Cultural differences in a global company can be used as a competitive advantage. Different cultures have competencies in different areas. A multi-cultural team, therefore, may be able to use these competencies in a positive way. In order to do this, you need to know what the differences, and, therefore, the competencies, are. Looking at the models and analysing the different approaches to business will help managers to do this.
English is the global language for business. Many non-native speakers of English have a very high level in the language. Despite this, there are often breakdowns in communication and misunderstandings. This is largely because communication styles vary considerably from one culture to another. Many native speakers do not adapt their use of English at all in international situations. They speak fast, and use idioms and short forms; they do not repeat, clarify or check others’ understanding frequently enough. Keep your language clear and simple; check, clarify, and summarise. Body language and gesture can also cause offence so it is sensible to be aware of major differences.
The most useful strategies are to be sensitive; to listen, and observe carefully: observe what others say and do. Be open and willing to ask questions and discuss differences. Think about the desired outcome of any business meeting and then openly discuss the different approaches and the best way or combination of ways to reach the desired outcome. Show respect for other values and attitudes without compromising your own. Accept that, in international dealings, we cannot judge something as being “right” or “wrong”, it is only different. Have a positive attitude towards differences.
Author: Anne Laws (former Pedagogical Adviser, Linguarama International)