CHAPTER 3 CROSS-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION
Consider the story of an American executive who was designated to deliver a formal presentation at a Japanese conference. During her presentation, the woman became acutely aware of a man in the audience who proceeded to make strange faces at her. Following the conclusion of her presentation, the woman voiced her disapproval to the Japanese hosts. And while an apology was immediately provided, it was discovered that the man in the audience had not intended to offend the American speaker. He simply became so fixated on her facial gestures that he inadvertently began imitating her. Should this story be considered an isolated incident of a simple misunderstanding or is this a prime example of everyday miscommunication between cultures? Many experts would support the second conclusion.
Most of the problems caused by cross-cultural clashes are usually the result of the failure by some or all parties involved to recognize and account for differences in culturally-based communication styles. They assume that all peoples communicate using the same set of modes and rules (many of which, like body language styles, are unconsciously held). For example, numerous professionals from the US make the mistake of assuming that all people want to be spoken to informally, just as they assume that simple body gestures strike the same chord in any culture, or the notion that an openly frank style of negotiating is most appreciated.
We should first realize that there is no such thing as a universal form of communication. Take the simple gesture of a smile. It is not unusual for Americans to exchange smiles with complete strangers. We smile at people on the street, at the airport, in restaurants, shopping malls and so on. We consider it a friendly gesture. However, in other cultures a smile can take on a completely different meaning. A smile can be considered insulting or it can signal embarrassment. Many Americans fail to realize that common gestures such as shrugging one's shoulders or scratching one's forehead can be completely misinterpreted by someone from another country.
Each culture has its own rules of communication. A French executive would probably be offended if a new acquaintance were to address him by his first name. Giving the "thumbs up" signal in Australia is impolite. And a display of frankness so common to Americans perpetuates the Japanese impression that the American people exhibit a lack of discipline. Even though such cultural collisions often elicit negative feedback, they rarely provoke extreme hostility. Instead, committing a cultural taboo is usually regarded as improper, discourteous, or disrespectful. The individual who has the misfortune of committing the taboo is "rewarded" with expressions of anger or flat-out silence, which in turn can be misinterpreted. Such mishaps in communication almost always serve to diminish one's credibility.
Usually, cross-cultural gaffes stem from misjudging situations that involve mingling and communicating with others. These include: the dress code for appointments, the manner in which we introduce ourselves and greet others, expressing thanks to the hosts as well as proper etiquette for the presentation of gifts. While the majority of Americans consider such events to be very routine, the fact remains that the interpretation of these social commitments varies from country to country. If we fail to educate ourselves in advance as to what is and what isn't acceptable, then we prime ourselves for unintentional embarrassment, possibly at the worst given moment.
Miscalculating the pertinence of cross-cultural communications can be counter-productive at best, or abysmal at worst. Cultural differences with regard to eye contact, when it is acceptable to smile, and name protocol for addressing foreign counterparts are all qualities that dramatically impact all angles of negotiation and interpersonal communication. For example, the word "no" is a response that the Japanese tend to avoid altogether. As strange as it may seem, if they are not optimistic about a given proposal, rather than tell you in so many words, they may choose to make a counter inquiry, they may avoid eye contact with you, or they may simply choose to walk away. Their answer is for all practical purposes spelled out in their behavior. Obviously, this can be very frustrating to American negotiators who are used to a straight forward "yes" or "no." Understanding and accepting cultural differences is critical if one expects to be successful in an overseas assignment.
AMERICANS IN EUROPE-AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MOLE
John Mole is a consultant and author on working effectively in the different business cultures of Europe. His book Mind Your Manners is an international best seller. John and I worked for the same bank years back. He has kindly shared some of his experiences in the following interview.
Q: You write about cultural differences in Europe. How important is
cultural awareness for Americans working in Europe?
A: Bain & Co., the international consultants, recently did a survey of unsuccessful cross- border mergers and alliances. They found that cultural difference was a significant contributor to failure along with poor planning and conflicts over control. However, sometimes cultural problems get the blame for deficiencies in the purely business aspects of a relationship. No amount of cultural sensitivity will disguise a bad plan or conflicting objectives. You have to get the strategy and the targets and the structure right for any collaboration to succeed. But once you have done that, how are you going to make it work? How are you going to get the people to work together? That's culture.
Q: Don't we have anything in common?
A: Europeans and Americans share very similar goals-to deliver growth and profit to their shareholders and benefit to their customers, employees, and their community. But we have very different ways to achieve those goals. Our values and beliefs and behaviors in the workplace and the marketplace often appear misguided or bizarre even to close neighbors in Europe. But they affect everything we do from the smallest daily habit to major life-changing decisions.
Q: For example?
A: The differences start with language. The 15 countries of the European Union share 11 official languages. In addition to these there are over 50 minority languages, such as Catalan and Flemish. Fifty million people in the EU speak one of these minority languages as their first language. And with each of those languages goes a distinct cultural package. No one expects American businesspeople to speak any of these languages except English but do expect them to be sensitive to different ways of thought and behavior.
Q: Surely you don't have to speak several languages to work in Europe?
The British and French don't.
A: Native English speakers, including Americans, are entitled to feel fortunate that English is the language of international business. But they should realize that it is a mixed blessing. Why? Because international English, or Offshore English as it is sometimes called, is not the same language that native speakers use at home. It has been said that the language of international business is the English of Business, Airlines, and Diplomacy-BAD English. It has a standard pronunciation, a small vocabulary, and none of the slang and jargon and colloquialisms that enliven native English. Phrases such as "What's the bottom line?" "This will raise the stakes," or "Is it all above board?" may mystify your foreign partners. And the last thing people admit to is that they don't understand what is being said. The British have the same problem. I know of a situation in which a German software company and a British company were competing for a contract with a Finnish customer. The Finns chose the Germans because they understood their English better.
Q: Sometimes Americans have a problem understanding the British. And
A: Right. I remember when I was hired by an American bank I received a letter from the head of the International Department saying, "Dear John, I am quite pleased that you have elected to join the bank." I almost tore it up and stayed in Europe. Because "quite" in English means "somewhat" or "not very." It is probably the single word that gives most problems between Brits and Americans. Another classic is "table" as in "I think you should table that idea." In American it means leave it off the agenda. In British it means put it on the agenda. But it's not only the words. The way you use language differs from country to country. Southern Europeans have a much more oral culture than Northern Europeans and Americans. They are prepared to act on the spoken word and ignore written communication. Their first reaction to a fax or a letter is not "What does this mean?" but "Why is it being written down?" Northern Europeans put more reliance on written communication. They don't take anything seriously unless it is communicated or confirmed in writing. This affects negotiations, presentations, even how you use the phone and e-mail. I always advise people to fax when they phone and phone when they fax. It saves time and money in the long run.
Q: Any other tips on communication?
A: Humor is a mine field. Americans are famous for the irrelevant and so often unfunny joke that kicks off a speech or presentation. In Britain and Ireland a sense of humor is part of the job description. It is the lubricant of everyday interaction. Yet in many European countries humor is taboo in a formal business context. To make a joke at a meeting, even if it is meant to calm things down or soften a criticism, may be viewed as trivial, offensive, or just plain stupid. And this is if the joke is understood. Humor travels very badly. Communication is not only about language. It is body language, dress, manners, attitudes, and conventions of behavior. Imagine you are at a meeting with Dutch or Danish associates and it gets to be lunchtime. If you break off and go to a good restaurant, they will think you are not serious about the business. They prefer a sandwich and a glass of mineral water. If you are meeting with French or Spanish and you offer them a sandwich instead of going to a restaurant, they will think you're not serious. They go out to a good restaurant instead.
Q: Does this mean Mediterraneans are more self-indulgent than
A: Certainly it is true that Mediterraneans attach more importance to good food and drink than northern Europeans and Americans. It is an important part of everyday life. But a deeper reason is that they need to cultivate the personal relationships that are so much more important in a business relationship than in the north. They want to know what sort of person you are and whether they can do business with you before talking about it. In many countries you simply cannot do business until you have first achieved a positive personal rapport. While this is less a factor in Northern Europe, it still takes far longer to get onto a business footing than in America. Americans should understand that in most European cultures they cannot walk into the office of a complete stranger, exchange business cards, and immediately start a sales pitch. And likewise Southern Europeans are having to learn to be effective in the more impersonal, systematic, and analytic cultures of the north.
Q: So the tip is to relax on that first meeting.
A: Certainly don't have too high expectations. But it's not simply a question of where you have lunch or what you do on the first meeting. Different concepts of personal and business relationships, ethics, customer loyalty, recruitment procedures, investor relations, corporate hospitality, management succession, a whole host of different things which the effective expatriate executive may have to deal with.
Q: There's a lot to learn.
A: Many cultural differences are like foreign weather or foreign plumbing. They are different but you get used to them. They are not going to spoil your business. I am interested in the ones that affect working together. Very often they are hidden.
Q: What are the important ones?
A: Americans often complain that British managers talk too much and are indecisive. British complain that French managers are autocratic and arrogant. French and British complain that Americans shoot from the hip and are poor listeners. This is because the role of managers is different in the three cultures. British managers are expected to work as a team and their interaction is fundamentally collaborative. In French organizations greater value is put on demonstrable individual competence. American managers have a heightened sense of individual accountability and feel that they must lead from the front. This all derives from different concepts of leadership-what it is to be a boss, how you get power and responsibility, and how you exercise it. This has an effect at all levels, from the way a staff meeting is run, to how the chief executive operates, to how negotiations are handled.
Q: Surely a meeting is a meeting is a meeting.
A: Not at all. The function of the meeting can be radically different from culture to culture. Things which we take for granted-the role of the chair, the agenda, the minutes, the need for consensus, time keeping, follow-up-can be very different in other countries. Broadly speaking, in Germany a meeting is a vehicle for experts to exchange information. Participants are well prepared and do not expect to be questioned or challenged. For the British and Dutch, it is a forum for interested parties to debate ideas and come up with a recommendation and an action plan. Everyone is expected to make a contribution. In France, a meeting is for the boss to announce decisions which have been made elsewhere or to solicit specific information. It is not a forum for debate. For Mediterraneans meetings are for making official the decision that has been made in the restaurant or the coffee bar and for sorting out the politics and the personal relationships that the decision affects. Such differences affect every aspect of business life, not just meetings: planning, control, teamwork, communication, recruiting, decision making. And we all think that our way of doing things is the right way. But if we are to seize opportunities in the changing global marketplace, we have to learn to understand and work with different ways of doing things. Understanding the dynamics of cultural difference is a vital competence for business leaders of today.
Q: Which is the most successful culture?
A: There is no inherently superior business culture. Every group or company does what is most effective for itself. The business cultures of Ford, Fiat, and Volkswagen are different but they are more or less equally successful. The problems occur when people from one culture start to work with those of another.
Q: So what's the most important thing for Americans in Europe to
A: I can't do better than to repeat the remarks quoted by the chairman of IBM for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Lucio Stanca stated in The International Herald Tribune:
"Some of my colleagues make the mistake of thinking of Europe as one single entity and this is a dramatic mistake. Europe is an aggregating of very different entities....A second very common mistake is a tendency to assume that what is good and right for America must work in Europe."
THE RIGHT APPROACH
Although many professionals and business entities appear to have developed a knack for cross-cultural communication, the truth is that successful communication is the result of a well thought-out strategy. For example, it is not unusual for international Japanese companies to require their overseas representatives to spend considerable time in the designated foreign country before the representative's input or recommendations are requested by the company's top executives. The light speed of globalization, as well as the continuing trend toward cultural diversity, has inspired a wide variety of books, videos, audio tapes and seminars on the "nuts and bolts" of cross-cultural negotiation. Communication difficulties have been discussed in numerous publications, such as Beyond Borders. The majority of advice recommends that the expat become familiar with each country and learn what is acceptable and what isn't acceptable in each culture.
Professionals with a successful track record of negotiating in a different cultural environment consistently strive to understand the etiquette of the culture they're dealing with. It is in their best interest to avoid any preconceived notions of the culture or to be tempted to assume that the foreign country mirrors their homeland. Successful overseas professionals become cultural specialists in a sense. For example, they study the target culture carefully to determine appropriate behavior in a variety of situations. They look for clues by asking such pertinent questions as:
Once some of these questions are answered, a clearer picture of the cultural landscape is visible. The next step is to consider other cultural factors that influence behavior and attitudes within the country. In terms of getting a clearer picture of the culture itself, take a close look at its historical background. A country whose military capabilities have prevented the occupation by any foreign military forces ultimately has a much different perspective on life than a country that has been invaded. Other factors that have ultimately made an impact on a culture's perspectives and attitudes include: geography, climate, ethnic heritage, and natural resources. Inevitably, these regional factors often determine not only how your prospective business partners perceive their own culture, but they also serve to influence their perceptions and attitudes in dealing with foreigners, such as yourself. Also keep in mind that no country can pretend to be an "ivory tower" that is isolated from the social influences of other cultures, even though these influences may go against the grain of the culture's own set of values. Remember, cross-cultural communication invariably flows in both directions. Their interaction with you is likely to be influenced by what they have been led to believe about the behavior of American culture, and vice versa.
The successful expat will take the trouble to determine the new culture's operating code of etiquette for business relationships. Just as in the US (whether you are conscious of them or not) there are certain "ground rules" that need to be observed, and this will be so in your overseas assignment. The tricky part is that these rules vary from culture to culture. Let's consider some of the primary issues that will need to be addressed:
Ideally, expats should have some command of the country's language and be somewhat familiar with issues involving the country's political agenda, the state of its economy as well as the social culture. In terms of the assignment itself, the expat needs to adopt a certain flexibility in work habits without compromising personal standards of excellence. According to one human resource director of an East Coast manufacturing company with employees around the world, one of the biggest mistakes professionals commit on foreign assignments is attempting to invoke the same approach towards business that proved to be successful in the United States. In any given situation, it is unrealistic for Americans to expect people from other cultures to react in a manner comparable to people from the United States.
Keep in mind that advance preparation in cultural communication does not necessarily guarantee a successful impression. And by the same token, committing the occasional faux pas will not ruin your career. Some of the most "seasoned" multi-cultural professionals commit cultural gaffes and it is inevitable that you will too. Do not become overwhelmed by this challenge. The willingness to observe carefully and learn, combined with flexibility and a healthy sense of humor, are likely to disarm most anyone you might do business with and will get you past all but the most heinous of offenses.
Does this mean that it is necessary for a multiculturalist executive to jump from one cultural extreme to another? Not necessarily. Consider that every culture has certain "common denominators" of values and beliefs which in turn enable them to interpret variations in philosophy that exist from country to country-even if it means negotiating with strange foreign characters, such as the person you see in the mirror each morning. Most experts agree that if there is such a thing as a universal trait, it is that all customers want to be on the receiving end of a "good deal." All customers, regardless of their culture, want to know specifically why it is in their best interest to agree to a proposed deal. Starting from this common ground, much can be accomplished.