Effective communications are vital for success in today’s business. Managers need to communicate with those they deal with—their customers, employees, vendors, and the public—in order to give directions, share ideas, motivate and elicit or disseminate needed information. Communicating takes up the majority of the time for managers and business people, and can be in the form of writing, talking, listening, or using the internet.
Communication can be defined as a process in which the sender is transferring meaning to the receiver. This involves coding of the message by the sender and decoding it by the receiver. A medium is involved in the conveyance of the message and can be words, behavior, or material artifacts. Naturally, in the process of communications breakdowns may occur and this is termed as noise. The barriers to effective communication include: semantics, where different words can have different meanings, such as fix and hot; jargon, when technical terms commonly used by various professions, such as military or engineers, are employed; acronyms and abbreviations mainly used by different groups such as the military; perception when one interprets things differently and distortion results; and emotion where one is unable to receive what is conveyed due to the pressures of the mental state.
When communication takes place across cultures, even greater challenges arise. As culture dictates how people view the world, it follows that culture also determines how people encode messages, the meaning they ascribe to the message, and how, when and why the message is transmitted, and finally how it is decoded and interpreted. Culture may be the actual foundation of communication. Hence cross-cultural variables directly affect the communication process and can pose a multitude of challenges. Here are some of the cultural variables that can affect the communication process:
There is a close relationship between language and culture. Language reflects and affects culture directly and indirectly. It is a reflection of the values of the particular community. Language is essentially meaning attached to words in a totally arbitrary way. The vocabulary of a language depicts what is considered important in that culture. There are seven words for bamboo in South India but only one for ice and there is no word for snow. In America there are several words pertaining to the self but only one in Japanese indicating the individualistic and collectivistic approaches of the two cultures.
Poor or limited knowledge of a language is a frequent cause of miscommunication and misinterpretation. When Pepsi Cola’s slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” was introduced in Germany, it was discovered that the literal German translation of “come alive” is “come out of the grave.”
A sign in a Romanian hotel informing the English–speaking guests that the elevator was not working read “The lift is being fixed. For the next few days we regret that you will be unbearable.” One way of overcoming this is to use back translation, where one person does the translation and another translates the translated version back ot the original language. Knowing a language well does not guarantee communication success. “Yes” when used by Asians usually means that they have heard you and understand what you are saying, while in the West it would be taken as agreement to your viewpoint or proposal.
Stereotyping occurs when a person assumes that all the people in that country or community have the same attributes, characteristics, or personality traits. Communication problems are bound to arise when we pre-judge individuals based on generalizations. Effective managers are aware of the dangers of cultural stereotyping and make it a point to deal with each person as an individual.
Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others and that others are incorrect or defective and that your way is best. There is a tendency to place one’s own group or ethnicity in a position of centrality. As such, ethnocentrism negatively affects intercultural communication. This is due to the fact that one’s cultural orientation acts as a filter for interpreting messages based on preconceived ideas about one’s self and others. One uses one’s own cultural standards to evaluate and communicate with others. One may talk down to others assuming that they lack knowledge. Ethnocentric speech may create ‘communicative distance’ and this would cause indifference, avoidance and disparagement. Managers must make it a point not to judge others based on their own values.
Paralanguage refers not to what is said but more to how it is said. It is less the content and more the manner it is conveyed—the tone (soft or harsh), the inflection of voice (pitch), the rate of speech (quality), and the sounds that are included in the speech (such as laughing). Paralanguage conveys emotions. Negatives emotions such as impatience, fear and anger may contribute to communication breakdown. In some Asian cultures, silence during communication is acceptable and indicates one is taking in and trying to understand fully what is being conveyed, while in the West silence may cause discomfort and impatience. Arabs have a tendency to speak loudly feeling this shows enthusiasm and sincerity. Thais speak loudly only when they are angry. Filipinos speak softly, as for them this is an indication of respect. Managers need to learn to interpret subtle differences caused by paralanguage.
Context plays an important part in cross-cultural communication in that it is not what the content of the conveyance but the place where it took place. The context in which the communication took place affects the meaning and interpretation of the interaction. In high-context cultures (Asia, Africa, Middle East) feelings are not openly disclosed, and one needs to read between the lines to get to the bottom of what is said.
In these cultures, explicit communication takes place in close personal relationships. In low-context cultures (Western Europe, North America, Australia) feelings are readily displayed. Misinterpretation results when mangers fail to take into account the context in which the message was conveyed. There is need to understand the inherent subtle gestures and nuances when communicating with high-context cultures.
Non-verbal communication is physical behavior that supports oral communication. Included are: posture, gestures, facial expression, interpersonal distance, touch, eye contact, color, and time. Research in communication suggests that many more feelings and intentions are sent and received nonverbally than verbally. These subtle means of communication account for between 65 and 93 percent of interpreted communication.
The way people hold their bodies frequently communicates information about their feelings, status, and intentions. The way one stands, sits or walks can send positive or negative messages. A stance or posture can signal agreement or disagreement, convey self-confidence, and indicate interest. Posture, when standing or when seated varies with culture. In the West, women when seated cross their legs at the ankle, and men cross with ankle at the knee. Crossing the leg with ankle on the knee would be considered inappropriate by most people in the Middle East. Also, people in Asia and in the Muslim world consider showing the sole of your shoe or pointing your foot at someone unacceptable and insulting. In most cultures, standing when an older person or one of higher rank enters or leaves the room is considered a sign of respect.
The use of fingers, hands and arms when communicating varies considerably from one culture to another and is used to add emphasis or clarity to an oral message. Most cultures have standard gestures for daily situations such as for greeting and departing. Americans typically use moderate gestures, while Italians, Greeks and Latin Americans use vigorous gestures when speaking. East Asians tend to keep their hands and arms close to their bodies when speaking. Communication problems arise when these have different meanings in different cultures. The “thumbs up” gesture means “everything is okay” in Western societies but is considered rude in parts of Africa. The “OK” sign with the thumb and forefinger joined in to form a circle is a positive sign in the United States but is in Brazil it is considered obscene. The beckoning gesture with either the fingers upturned or using just the forefinger is used for calling a waiter or to an employee to come hither. To the Filipinos and other Asians it is offensive as serves to beckon animals and prostitutes. Vietnamese and Mexicans also find it offensive.
The face is very central to the process of communication. It is capable of expressing emotions, attitudes, and factual information instantly. People learn how to control facial expressions to mask emotions to suit their particular needs and in compliance with cultural norms. In the United States a smile means happiness. The Japanese may smile or giggle to cover anger, happiness or sadness. The Chinese people rarely show emotion and may smile or laugh softly when they are embarrassed or to conceal any discomfort. Koreans rarely smile as they consider people who smile a great deal as shallow. They consider it highly desirable to keep an expressionless face. Yet, Thailand is called the “Land of Smiles.” The Pacific people are also known for their wide use of smiling and in certain parts of Africa laughter is used to express surprise, wonder and embarrassment and not amusement or happiness. Facial expressions need to be interpreted correctly in the context of the particular culture.
Communicating by using space is known as proxemics and refers to the physical distance between people when they are interacting and is highly influenced by culture. Researchers have identified four zones from which U.S. people interact. The ‘intimate zone’ is less that 18 inches and is reserved for very close friends; the personal zone from 18 inches to 4 feet is for working closely with another person; the social zone from 4 to 12 feet is for normal business situations; and the public distance of over 12 feet is the most formal zone. People in America tend to need more personal space that Asians, Arabs, Africans, and some Europeans.
Conversational distance also varies between cultures: for Latin Americans the distance is 15 inches or so, while in the Middle East, this can be as small as 9 to 10 inches. It is common in Asia for very little space to be left between individuals when standing in line.
Touch or haptics may be the most personal form of non-verbal communication. Touching takes place in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes and includes shaking hands, patting the head or the back, holding hands, hugging, kissing, and linking arms. Each culture has a well defined understanding as to who can touch whom, on what parts of the body, and under what circumstances. High-touch cultures include Mediterranean countries, Arabs, Jews, Eastern Europeans, and South Asians, while the English, Germans, Northern Europeans, Americans, and East Asians are considered low-touch cultures. Touching while dancing is a clear indicator of differences in various cultures—some dance in close proximity in embrace, while others maintain some distance.
Some cultures place more emphasis on gaze or eye contact called oculesics, but all cultures use it when communicating. Direct eye contact is preferred in most Western cultures and is taken as a sign of sincerity, trustworthiness and respect. People who avoid eye contact may be considered insecure, untrustworthy, unfriendly, disrespectful or inattentive. In other cultures there is little direct eye contact and lowering of the eyes is considered a form of respect in China, Indonesia, parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Direct eye contact in East Asia may be construed as being offensive while in the Middle East prolonged and intense eye contact is commonly accepted behavior. In India and Egypt, eye contact is avoided between people from different social backgrounds. Managers need to be aware of the implications of too much or not enough eye contact that each culture and situation demands.
Color or chromatics is a communication tool as it can affect the mood, emotion, and impression. Some colors have positive or negative connotations. Color is often used in symbolism and may also represent an emotional state. Black in many cultures (such as the United States) represents sophistication but also sadness. White is pure and peaceful but in some societies associated with mourning.
In the West, white is worn by brides; in India yellow is preferred and in China it is red. Yellow, and at places purple, is considered the color of royalty. Purple is the color of death in some Latin countries. Red, in many cultures, is associated with romance and in China and Japan represents good fortune. Green is the color of religion in Islamic cultures. In many countries blue represents masculinity and pink femininity. Awareness of such representation is vital when relating to other cultures.
Time or chromatics is a cultural variable that affects business communication directly the most. The way people view time varies from culture to culture. Monochromic societies see time as linear, having a past, present and future. It is considered as something to be spent, saved, or wasted. Most Western countries are monochromic. Other cultures are polychromic in that they do not consider time as a commodity and place less value on it, feeling that there is abundance of time available to all.
- Helen Deresky, International Management: Managing Across Borders and Cultures (Pearson Hall, 2008);
- Gary P. Ferraro, The Cultural Dimension of International Business (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006);
- James W. Neuliep, Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach (Sage, 2009).
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