June 08, 2017

Communicating with People from Different Cultures - The Importance of Culture

Lester Wills

Lester Wills
Marketing & Management Consultant/TLG Consulting

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I wrote a series of articles that were published in a Journal across Australia several years ago.  I have updated and amended these and posted them here to illustrate one of my areas of expertise. This is the second article in the series.

Communicating with People from Different Cultures - The Importance of Culture

Adapting to different cultures, even within one society, is a major challenge of doing business in modern day multicultural cities.  It requires an understanding of cultural diversity, communication patterns, perceptions, stereotypes, and values.

So what is culture?  There are many definitions but it would be fair to say that it is the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behavior.  Culture also has the characteristics of being learned, shared, is trans-generational, symbolic, patterned and adaptive.  Culture affects all aspects of people's lives, from the language people speak to the way people dress and interact with others.

In some cultures, a suit and tie for men and a suit and a skirt for women may be appropriate business attire, while in other cultures, the business attire may be less formal. For some cultures, a business meeting with a superior will begin with introductory bows, and in other cultures, the meeting would begin with a handshake.  Each culture has its own set of habits, values, and ways of interacting with others, and these differences between cultures frequently are the source of problems in intercultural communication.

As outlined in the first article, ‘Be Aware of the Problem’, the communication process is a two way-street, with both the sender and receiver having an effect on what is communicated and how it is interpreted.  This can involve both the external and internal flow of information as well as verbal and nonverbal communication styles. The key to the effectiveness of communication is how accurately the receiver interprets the intended message.

Being able to communicate successfully with potential customers across cultures increases your ability to understand the customer’s needs and to make a sale to the customer.  In addition, you are likely to encounter work colleagues who are from different cultures.  Being able to communicate effectively with them will allow you to avoid problems that can stem from miscommunications and to work effectively to accomplish work-related tasks.  Ultimately, communicating effectively with people from other cultures will enrich your life, both professionally and personally.

Because culture affects so many aspects of people's lives, people are frequently unaware of their own culture and how it differs from other cultures.  In addition, most people have a tendency to assume that the values, behaviors, communication, and style of their own culture are what are normal or correct and that the behaviors, values, and so on of people from other cultures are strange and incorrect.  This is called ethnocentrism and is a common attitude with people who have not been exposed to different cultures, or whom are unwilling to accept the benefits of diversity.

An important barrier to intercultural communications is language.  Even though people from other cultures may speak English, it may not be your English.  That is because even the language people speak from other English-speaking cultures, such as Great Britain, has some important differences from the English spoken in the United States, and these differences can create miscommunication and misunderstandings. As I have discovered, there are indeed many differences in the use of the English language between the US and the UK.

English has become the business world’s lingua franca.  Although you may be speaking English, do you always REALLY understand what your counterparts are saying to you?

I came across some examples that illustrate how simple expressions can be utterly confusing to some.

Your friendly new British colleague you met in the corridor make a comment you took literally.  They said you should come over for a coffee some time.  Sounds like an invite, yes?  Actually no, as they would most likely be very surprised if you turned up at their doorstep.

Your colleague from Eastern Europe needs you to do something for him but surprises you with the way they ask.  They simply bark a request at you which you find a little surprising and possibly even a little rude.

For non-Americans it can be very confusing when your American colleague passes you their cup with an inch of cold coffee lurking at the bottom, and asks for a warm-up.  To most Brits, these would seem very strange and even possibly a little disgusting.

However, to understand such things you need to look behind the spoken words.

Your friendly British colleague was just being polite, “let’s do something some time” is merely an English expression, bearing as much weight and actual intention behind it as the notorious “hi, how are you”.  If they really did want to invite you for a coffee, they would have made a date.

Your Eastern European colleague was actually making a polite request, in what they thought was a perfectly polite manner.  If you take a closer look at what a polite request is in English, a simple sentence tends to contain at least two “pleases”, one or two “could you’s” and “would you’s” and sometimes even opens with a phrase “ would you like to” when clearly this is not the case.

In many other languages, such a multitude of polite expressions crammed into a sentence tends to be considered excessive and in some languages a simple “would you” already implies softened message and a polite request.

For non-Americans, when your American colleague wanted a warm-up of their coffee, they did not mean for you to reheat the sad leftovers at the bottom of their cup, but in fact a re-fill, it as this is simple an American expression.

Language is a phenomenon that is very deeply set in our culture, our roots and our background we tend to always come back to the way of expressing our thoughts that is most natural to us.

As I have discovered, there are cultural differences between what on the surface appear to be similar cultures.  I can remember visiting the States on many occasions before I came to live here.  The first time was with my family and I recall going to a restaurant.  We ordered our meal and included a salad.  The salad arrived after a few minutes.  Twenty minutes later, we were still waiting for our meal and still looking at our salad.  We eventually worked out the problem. 

In England it is traditional to eat the salad with your main meal (unlike the French who eat it afterwards).  In the US you eat the salad before the main meal.  So while we were waiting for the meal to arrive so we could eat the salad, the serving staff were waiting for us to finish the meal so they could bring us the main meal. 

This was after we got over the difference in labels of the various course.  In Europe, the Entrée comes before the main meal, here the Entrée is the main meal (because appetizers’ come first).

I can recall another miscommunication that could have caused a very unfortunate incident on another trip to the US.  I had come to attend a conference and was hosting a meal for some advisers from Australia one evening.  After the meal the waitress came and asked for coffee orders.  I asked for a long black.  She looked at me then moved on to the next person.  Then she came back and asked me again, I repeated, a long black.  She looked at me strangely before going on to take the rest of the orders.  She then came back to me and said, I am sorry, what exactly is a long black?  As anyone who lives in America knows (as I now do as well) coffee is usually served here black, with cream (or milk to Brits).  I explained that a long black was a large black coffee as opposed to a short black which was a small black coffee.  She explained that the cups were all the same size and that they provided endless refills.  I suddenly understood her confusion.

To further illustrate some differences I have collected some examples of gift giving.  You would think giving a gift is pretty safe, think again, it is actually it is a mine field.  You can end up making a serious mistake.  What you give, how you give it, to whom you give it, when you give it and, if in Japan, how that gift is wrapped are all important issues that if not carried out in the correct manner can have the opposite effect that intended.

People with a Chinese cultural background have a collectivist attitude (I will explain this another time) and accept gifts with a reserved demeanor.  In order not to appear greedy, a gift will not be immediately taken, but refused three times before finally being accepted.  Each time it’s refused, you as the giver should graciously continue to offer the gift.  And once it’s taken, tell the person you’re happy it’s been accepted.

But, how you give the gift is also important.  It is offered using both hands and must be gift-wrapped; though it won’t be opened it front of you.  It will be set aside and opened later.  This tradition eliminates any concern that the recipient’s face might show any disappointment with the gift.

If you’re presented a gift, follow the same process of refusing it three times then accept it with both hands.  You’ll also not open it, but wait until later.

A good guideline if there’s a concern is to offer a gift, saying you’re giving it on behalf of your company.  It’s important to always honor the most senior person, so he will be the individual you actually present with the gift, stating you want him to accept it on behalf of his company.  This gesture, company to company, will usually circumvent any problem regarding undue influence.  If you have several gifts to present, never give the same item to people of different rank or stature.  The more senior the person, the more expensive the gift.

Typically one person is not singled out to receive a special gift, especially in front of a group.  If you’ve established a good working relationship with someone and want to give a gift, arrange a time when the two of you are alone to present it.  Then when you do give it, be sure to say it’s being offered as a gesture of your friendship, not business.

A gift’s value should be commensurate with the level of the business dealings.  This applies both to an individual’s gift and a corporate gift.  There are times when an expensive gift fits the occasion and circumstance, but an overly extravagant one could create complications or embarrassment, as the recipient may not be able to reciprocate.

In Chinese culture symbolism is important, with colors and numbers having special meaning.  For instance, at Chinese New Year, Money may be given in a red envelope; it must be even amount, using an even number of new bills.

Red is a lucky color; pink and yellow represent happiness; and the number 8 is the luckiest number.  The colors black, white and blue and the number 4, or four of anything, are associated with death or funerals as are clocks, handkerchiefs, and straw sandals.

Sharp objects like knives or scissors represent a ‘severing of a friendship or relationship’- including a business relationship.

You don’t want to inadvertently select a gift that has a negative or unlucky association.  And because of the symbolism, it can happen.  For instance, a fine writing pen would be a good gift, unless it has red ink, which is bad.

In Japan gift giving is an art form, representing friendship, respect, and gratitude.  The ceremony is more important than gift.  A gift is always in a gift box, or beautifully wrapped in quality paper, and given with great respect.  Because the symbolism is what’s important, the gift itself may actually be very modest.

In Japanese culture there’s an expectation a gift will be offered at the first meeting, and gifts will continue to be part of your business dealings.  Consequently you should be prepared at that first meeting with a beautifully wrapped, quality gift that’s not extravagant.  It’s a gesture that you’re looking forward to a long lasting relationship.

One custom is to reciprocate with a gift that’s half the value of a gift received.  If your gift is too expensive, it could create an awkward situation, even at half the value.

Don’t be surprised however, especially if you’re a high level executive, to receive a lavish gift.  The Japanese executive will consider your status and the business relationship when selecting your gift. 

If you have a gift to present, don’t pop up at the end of the meeting with it as you should not surprise your Japanese associate.  The correct proper procedure is to tell them during the meeting that you have a small gift, or gifts, you’ll want to present at the end of the meeting.  This verbal cue respects the protocol, and allows the opportunity to make arrangements for any additional people who may need to come into the meeting for the presentation.

When you offer your gift, hold it in both hands and bow, saying words that let the person know, ‘this gift is insignificant in comparison to the importance of the relationship’.  Saying it’s “a small thing”, even if the gift is expensive, conveys this sentiment.

The Japanese will politely refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it.  And it will not be opened in your presence.  When a gift is offered to you, follow this same ceremony.  Politely refuse once or twice, and then accept it with both hands, saving it to open later.

In addition to gifts being routinely given for various occasions or meetings, there are two ‘gift giving’ seasons each year.  One is mid-summer (O-Chugen) and the other at the end of the year (O-Seibo).  A gift should be given during each of these seasons.

Gifts of food or liquor (cookies, expensive candy, and fruit) are always good choices especially for modest gifts.  If you’re bringing a gift from your home country, make sure it’s not ‘made in Japan’.  And don’t select company items with your logo that may be a promotional item and look cheap.

In Japan symbolism is important.  A gift with a pair of items is considered lucky, but sets of four or nine are unlucky.  In addition, the number 4 is linked with death; and the color red is associated with funerals, so once again don’t give a pen with red ink, and don’t write out a card using red.  Books aren’t appropriate; and sharp objects like knives, scissors, and letter openers symbolize ‘severing a relationship’.

As you can see, doing business at the intercultural level can be a little tricky.

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