Americans in particular come across as being blunt, rude, and inappropriate in many parts of the world. They have a reputation for being close-minded and difficult to get along with.
This is news to most Americans.
The Real Challenge Of Cross Cultural Communication
Part of the problem is how different cultures communicate, and it’s not limited to Americans. Germans, the Swiss, and other Westernized people such as the English also encounter similar obstacles — although, it tends to be worse with Americans.
Here’s a good example. One of my overseas colleagues relayed the story of Jack, a U.S. businessman visiting Thailand. Jack and his host, Gan, had concluded a few days of negotiations on a contract. While there had been a few missteps and mistakes, Gan was tolerant for the most part and did his best to ignore his guest’s loud, boisterous manner and overly familiar gestures. Even so, I think both of them were relieved to sign the contract — easily worth a few million dollars in revenue to each of them. Everything looked like it was going well and Jack felt a celebration was in order. As he loudly slapped the table in celebration, he pulled out two cigars, and casually offered one to Gan. Gan, always respectful and polite, genially accepted the cigar without smiling but declined the offer to light it. Then, Jack did the unthinkable in Thailand: He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the table, and proceeded to light his cigar. Jack was utterly clueless when his host stood up, tore the contract in half, threw it in the trash, and with a perfunctory shallow bow, turned and walked out of the room.
Jack lost the deal and headed home without talking to Gan again. Had he been more perceptive to the communication cues Gan had been sending, he would have known he was on thin ice. Throughout their meeting, Gan had often responded to Jack with typically subtle Thai messages. Sometimes responding without the characteristic Thai smile, with silence, or with direct eye contact. At one point Gan had even given an oblique story about how many Thai’s could not understand America’s brash culture, but the meaning was lost on Jack who laughed it off. He said America was “the Wild West,” and seemed to think it some kind of compliment.
It’s most likely that Jack was equally confused by Gan. Clearly, their meeting ended in a way that totally surprised Jack. It’s also likely that he thought Gan’s comments about his “Wild West” country was just an excuse for him to act more like a cowboy. Unfortunately, it was that very same thick American skin that kept him from seeing what was developing.
Low-Context versus High-Context
Team members in multinational projects come face-to-face with differences in business culture every day. Most of the time, problems crop up from these cultural differences, but go unnoticed until it’s too late — for instance, until after quality problems have been “baked in” to a product. By then, the project is well on the road to failure.
Lack of perception and appreciation for other cultural cues lead to many misunderstandings. Communication around the world varies widely, along a spectrum defined on one end by low-context and the other by high-context communication.
Western business culture, perhaps most dramatically represented by the United States, Germany, and Australia, relies on low context communication. These cultures rely predominantly on words — something common with extremely diverse cultures. As so many people of diverse backgrounds have come together, the lowest common denominator survives as the principle means of communication. In the United States, English, more than anything else, is relied upon almost exclusively. This reliance on the English word, and little else, helps explain why long legal agreements have become typical of American business culture: The written word entirely represents the relationship.
In strong contrast to this, cultures belonging to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South America and other Eastern cultures) are intensely high context. They rely on rich communication techniques. These cultural methods of communication include formal and informal address, story telling, silence, body language, over-confirmation, timing, eye contact, and a host of other cues that are completely lost on many Westerners.
Cultural cues vary dramatically from one culture to another, and Westerners will blithely ignore what isn’t immediately recognized. The Indian head waggle is a great example. Because they don’t recognize what it means, Westerners assume it means nothing. (The waggle can mean, in a uniquely unenthusiastic way, “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I completely understand what you just said.” It can also mean “Maybe,” “Hell no,” and “You are the enemy of intelligence.” Interpreting it requires time, practice, and above all, a personal presence).
Tips For Cross Cultural Communication
Every culture has its own unique characteristics. Knowing in advance what to expect, especially if you work across many cultures, is not something that comes quickly.
Beginning to build sensitivity toward communication cues is pivotal for anyone working in a Global context. Probably the most important single step to take is developing an awareness of your own culture. With this awareness, comes a sensitivity to things that don’t fit. For example, simply being aware that you don’t know what an Indian head waggle means can prompt you to ask what’s going on.
Here are a few more practical tips to keep in mind when working with international partners.
- If you come from a Western culture, be watchful and observant. Realize that meaning is attached to more than direct words. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
- While Westerners generally tell stories for entertainment value, Easterners will usually look for hidden meaning in those stories.
- Silence, in the East, is a form of communication and is not at all uncomfortable. Westerners tend to fill the silence, leaving Easterners feeling uncomfortable or rushed.
- If you come from an Eastern culture, keep in mind that your Western partner is paying attention chiefly to words, and not very much to other forms of communication.
As Jack learned the hard way, the feet are considered unclean, or the lowest part of the body. In Asia, feet should not be used to touch things, such as closing a door, or put up on a desk or table. Just pointing your foot at someone is extremely distasteful. Having the sole of your foot facing anyone is an exceptionally rude insult — a form of communication that, as Jack learned, was unforgivably obtuse. Throughout most of Asia, feet are commonly regarding in this manner. To be safe, make sure your feet are flat on the ground at all times.
When traveling or working internationally, the best thing to do is to get some exposure early. Develop some sensitivity to your own cultural cues, and try to explore your host’s cultural preferences. This could be a vacation, or a coaching session, or even a conversation with a friend from that culture. Above all, avoid jumping in blindly and thinking the business culture of another country is going to be just like home.