Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

What Is Monochronic?

Different cultures view time along a spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at either end. When planning to do business overseas it’s a good idea to understand which end of the spectrum your native culture falls closest to, and where your overseas partner’s time orientation lies. Zacharias Beckman guides you through what it’s like to be “monochronic” in this week’s video blog.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about monochronic time orientation. Do you feel that being late is unprofessional? Or that, your entire day could be thrown out of wrack if you are delayed just a little bit?

Monochronic cultures tends to be focused on the schedule — on doing one thing after another, usually in sequence. Sometimes this is called sequential orientation. Western cultures are very monochronic. Particularly countries like the United States, or perhaps Switzerland or Germany. In the west its common to schedule a day full of meetings, back to back, maybe eight meetings in one day. Agendas end promptly and move into the next meeting, one right after the other.

This approach doesn’t work too well in the east and middle east where culture is polychronic. Polychronic cultures have other priorities and this western schedule driven approach can send the wrong message and often offend the people that you are meeting with.

This sequential approach, this focus on time, is very often a problem when working with eastern or middle eastern cultures, which tend to be polychronic. Polychronic cultures have very different priorities and they think about time differently. By focusing on the schedule, the wrong message can be sent, and misunderstandings can result.

What Is Polychronic?

From a young age, some of us hear that “time is money,” growing up to respect being on-time and efficient. Others learn that time is fluid, and should be invested generously (time is one thing that we never run out of, after all). Polychronic cultures like to do multiple things at the same time and resist being pushed into sequential, linear schedules. Cultures vary from one part of the world to another.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about polychronic time orientation. Think about this story: You are in a phone store, you are buying a new phone and the sales rep is surrounded by 8 or 10 other individuals, all clamoring for attention, and the thing is, he’s giving them attention. He is working with all of them. Polychronic orientation is doing more than one thing at a time. It’s very efficient. Consider the phone store example — while one person’s phone is rebooting, and while another is waiting for a carrier connection, that sales rep can work with someone else. So multiple people are getting served at the same time.

It is also very practical, because much of the world does not have the reliable infrastructure of some modern western countries. Transportation is unpredictable. Power is unpredictable. So, people don’t say that they’re going to be somewhere at an exact time. They don’t necessarily count on being able to work the whole day, because the power might go out. They hedge their bets and, in the meantime, they plan on doing more than one thing at a time. So they’re not inconvenienced by unpredictable infrastructure.

Consider this: If you are in a meeting and suddenly you look at your watch and say, “Oh, I’m out of time. Time to go,” [something that] happens often in the west, well it’s very disrespectful throughout most of the East and Middle East particularly. Because you are basically saying you value your time and schedule more than the relationship that you’re trying to build. Instead, the polychronic individual will take time to build the relationship, even if that means going over budget on the time. Because they trust that the next person they plan to meet will understand that. They will understand the importance of the relationship, and they’ll feel that when their turn comes, you will put the same importance on developing a relationship with them.

The polychronic individual plans on doing multiple things at one time. So, they won’t be inconvenienced or put out by a change in  schedule. It’s important to remember that most of the world is polychronic in their orientation.

How To Negotiate Across Cultures

Understanding how to negotiate in any business setting, around the world, is a fantastic skill. It takes a depth of perception about the people you are working with as well as the business culture you are immersed in.

Communication is the most obvious global communication gap. It’s the first thing we usually encounter, one aspect of personal interaction that poses a clear barrier. Throughout the world, different cultures take a very different approach to negotiations — and a lot of it comes down to how they communicate. British linguist Richard D. Lewis, whose book “When Cultures Collide,” charts these different styles. Lewis himself is an accomplished linguist and speaks 10 languages.

How To Negotiate Culturally

Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)
Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)

His diagrams provide a visual model of how people from different cultures negotiate in meetings and other business dealings. The inset chart includes a number of his cultural models, where potential obstacles are grey, wide shapes imply greater conversational range, and annotations offer other hints and clues to negotiation style.

So, for example, Americans are notoriously straightforward, direct, and even confrontational. They tackle problems head on, launching into negotiations immediate (before building a strong relationship). In contrast, nearly all Asian cultures are much less direct. Meetings tend to be focused more on building relationships and gathering information, especially with Japanese and Chinese cultures. Indian culture, on the other hand, tends to engage in long, verbose, sociable dialogue but eventually leads to fierce negotiation and elaborate postulating, ultimately seeking a mutually agreeable compromise. Of Indian culture, Lewis writes, “Determination of price must come last, after all the benefits of the purchase or deal have been elaborated. Indians use all their communicative skills to get to the price indirectly.”

Lewis’ diagrams on cross cultural communication style and negotiation are an invaluable aid to the multinational manager. They serve to remind us that different cultures approach negotiation differently. Each has unique expectations. Where one culture may push quickly for closure, another may want to create a deep, long-term relationship. Understanding what your partner expects is key to success.

The Five Business Cultural Practices

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that communication style is but one of many cultural preferences. Knowing how your partner will communicate is like having one number for a five combination lock.

The unexperienced think immediately of language and communication skill as the essential core of International negotiations. But there are many more dimensions that deeply influence business practices — not just what language we speak, or how we communicate. For example, every cultureperceives time differently. Some cultures prize time highly, running business activities to a tight schedule. Others feel less driven by the agenda, instead taking time to get to know each other, valuing carefully thought out actions and relationships as more important than “meeting the schedule.”

I’ve periodically posted videos on other cultural preferences, too, including power distance and individualism. Developing a deep awareness of each one is absolutely necessary to truly understand and be successful in Global business.

How Do I Find The Right Global Partner?

Businesses are thinking bigger now. Your partners need to understand your values, win business and support contracts for you, and vice-versa. But, finding the wrong global partner could be a huge blunder. Here are few tips to help you make the right decision.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and today I want to talk about finding the right partner to go into business with, overseas. A lot of our customers come to us because they are in business with the wrong partner. They found a great looking ad on the internet, they sourced a request for proposals, and they got back an excellent response. Before you know it, they’re signing a contact and they’re going into the business — really, with somebody that they don’t know.

The problem with this is that, on an international scale, contracts don’t mean the same thing that they do locally. Part of this is just a practical matter. Enforcing a contract overseas is very hard. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming. But more important than that, is that relationships are the core of business in most of the world. That means that to find a really good partner you have to build a relationship network. You’ve got to have feet on the ground, overseas, building connections that you can use to find partners that are trustworthy. Those connections are what’s going to help you find the right partner, internationally.

The most important thing here is that, when it comes to finding a partner overseas, you need to have a relationship. You need to have feet on the ground, you need to build a trusted network, and you need to create a relationship based in more than just a written contract. And you need to understand the culture in which you are doing business, so that you really know how to relate to and build that strong relationship with your new partner.

Who Is My Outsourced Team’s Decision Maker?

When it comes to decision making, it’s important to know who is the decision maker at your overseas partner or vendor (and it might not be who you expect)! Business culture around the world varies a lot. It’s very likely you will experience misunderstandings when Western and Eastern firms work together. Here are some tips on how to avoid the misunderstandings.

I’m Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about who it is at your partner firm, overseas, that actually makes decisions. You might be quite surprised to find out who can and who cannot make decisions. For example, let’s say you’re Asian, Chinese or Indian, and you’re working with a European firm. You might be completely shocked when a subordinate seems to go out on his own, make a decision, and act on it. That’s because many cultures expect decisions to be made at the top and then directed down to the subordinates.

Subordinates are expected to inform their superiors. Their superiors will take this information and weigh it, and then make a decision and convey that decision to the subordinate. So this can cause problems when Western and Eastern firms work together.

Westerners thinks that anyone is empowered to make a decision. They’ll have a conversation with an Eastern partner, and they’ll hear agreement to a particular recommendation or decision; it comes across that the decision has been made. But it hasn’t. All that’s happened is, the Eastern partner whom they are talking to has expressed agreement to the decision. They have expressed the idea that this would be an agreeable decision. But that doesn’t mean its within their power to make it happen. It’s up to the Western boss to communicate to the Eastern, boss at the same level, to make sure that decisions happen. This will not happen by itself.

Here is an example: We had a client who had engaged a firm in India. And they wanted to go visit this firm in India. Get to know them better, which is a great idea. The CEO hopped on a plane, but when he got to India, nobody was there to meet him. The President of the firm that he wanted to visit wasn’t even in the office! The entire trip had not been coordinated, it had not been communicated up the chain properly because the CEO who was coordinating this trip should have been talking to the CEO on the other side.

We have to make sure that the decisions are made at the right level and those decisions need to be communicated multiple times, back and forth. And you have to look for more than just agreement. You have to look for confirmation that the decision is being acted upon.

10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

What Is Collectivism?

Americans are motivated by personal choice and gain. But, many Asian cultures are not. Instead, these “collectivist” cultures are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit a person’s family and raise their personal “face” and their standing in the eyes of society. Understanding this fundamental difference is critical.

Hi, I am Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about collectivism. When working with people from around the world, you’ll be quite surprised at how different their habits are and their expectations are. For example, if you’re working with Japanese partners, you may notice how surprised they are at how much free time Americans seem to have. Americans use this time for fitness, for taking time with their kids and family, going to movies. But they do it during the week. In Japan, the week is for the business. Business comes first. Personal time ends up on the weekends.

Indians have a similar cultural orientation. They may go to work kind of late in the morning, work a long afternoon, take a dinner break and then end up going back to work and working late into the evening until 10 or 11; even midnight. And that’s a practical matter because many Indian firms work with so many companies around the world that they need to adjust their schedule. But that again is putting the business first, ahead of family. This is what collectivism is.

Collectivism Is Thinking “We,” Before “I”

Collectivism is thinking about what’s good for the group, what’s good for the business, before thinking about what’s good for the individual. Americans are extremely individualist. This means that they make decisions based on what’s good for them personally. They move out of the house early because they want to be on their own. They make career decisions because it’s what they want to do. It’s really important to understand this difference, because it fundamentally changes how different teams, how people around the world, are motivated.

Americans are motivated by personal advancement and by personal gain. But, many Asian cultures, collectivist culture, are not motivated by those same things. Instead, they are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit their family the most, what’s going to raise their personal face and their standing in the eyes of society. For example, an American might be motivated by career advancement or a career change. But that exact same choice to somebody in Asia could mean loss of face, it could mean a lack of ability to hire friends into a new company, where they are relatively new themselves.

It’s the difference between knowing how to motivate individuals who are primarily concerned with their own career and their own advancement in society, versus knowing how to motivate somebody who is concerned about their social group. They are concerned about the well being of everybody around them and their standing in the eyes of that society.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.

What Is Low Context Communication?

Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.

Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].

Low / High Context Misunderstandings

For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that this person would never do business with the other person.

It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.

Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words

Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.

This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.