Global businesspeople often encounter difficulties in cross-cultural communication. These difficulties arise when people from different national cultures have a different understanding of the same concept and different ways to express their thoughts on it. In this backdrop, business people need a better understanding of the factors affecting cross-cultural communication. Communication is effective when the person receiving the message attaches a meaning to the message that is similar to the way the sender intended it. Much of this intention is dependent on one’s communication style, which refers to a person’s particular pattern of communication.
Communication involves the sharing of information between two or more people, where the information has relevance to at least one of the parties. When this communication occurs between people from different national cultures, the intended meaning of what is being communicated can be distorted by different cultural values. Given the increase in international business, communication across diverse ethnic cultures is becoming increasingly common for many businesspeople.
There are four main communications styles, each style appropriate for different cultural and business settings depending on the objective of the communication. These styles are (1) tell: inform or explain the meaning, (2) sell: persuade or convince, (3) consult: involves high interaction with other parties, and (4) join: collaboration and sharing ideas among parties. The tell and sell communication styles are mainly found in individualistic cultures such as Canada and New Zealand, whereas the consult and join styles are more prevalent in collectivist cultures such as China and Japan.
All cross-border communication exists in a cultural context. The terms high context and low context refer to the different rules surrounding the exchange of information and the extent to which the communication is direct or indirect. In high-context cultures such as Japan and Indonesia, communication is slow in getting to the point because consideration is given to people’s feelings about what is being said. Therefore what is communicated is as important as how it is communicated. In this context communication is implicit and indirect. In contrast, in low-context cultures meaning is conveyed by rational argument. The explicit, direct use of words conveys the intended meaning.
A strong link exists between how cultures treat time and how cultures communicate. Monochromic or linear temporal-oriented cultures (e.g., the United States and the United Kingdom) tend to “get to the point” in their communications very quickly, with little time for introductions. Conversely, polychromic cultures found throughout Asia and the Middle East might find this linear approach too direct and rude. These cultures prefer a more circuitous approach to communications, because time has neither a beginning nor an end. Time then becomes an important variable in cross-cultural communications.
Semantics is the study of meaning in language. In cross-cultural communications, semantics is important because many languages have words that do not translate exactly into words in another language. The challenge for global businesspeople is to find substitute words that convey similar meaning without losing the essence of the communication.
The use of a formal tone versus an informal tone is an important consideration in communications. Some cultures require a formal tone in communications whereas others require an informal, relaxed approach. Knowing the appropriate tone requires research into the foreign culture prior to the commencement of any dialogue.
There is a belief that what is not said is as important as what is said. International businesspeople must be aware of nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions, eye contact, posture, pouting, frowning, and gestures, as these may be offensive in different cultures. Nonverbal communication is a substitute for words. Often there is a contradiction between the verbal and nonverbal communication, where the spoken words convey one meaning and the nonverbal communication (e.g., body posture, facial expression) conveys a different meaning. Usually, nonverbal communication is not consciously observed unless it causes the receiver some confusion or doubt. Thus, businesspeople should be conscious of both forms of communication and align them to communicate one unambiguous meaning.
Effective communication requires as much skill in listening as in speaking. Effective listening improves communication because it involves skills that include asking questions to clarify, empathizing with the speaker (and their point of view), looking at the speaker when they speak, and responding both verbally and nonverbally to the speaker’s comments. Effective listening is also useful in conflict resolution. Listening with intent rather than simply hearing what aggrieved parties are trying to communicate is a focal point in conflict resolution.
As businesses look to world markets for growth and profit, the ability to effectively communicate in both a business and social setting with people from different cultural backgrounds will become increasingly important. Businesspeople skilled in intercultural business communications stand to benefit from conducting business across international borders more than those without such training. Communicating effectively across international borders provides both challenges and opportunities for the global business manager. The challenges relate to understanding different communication styles and expectations in different cultures. Given the ethnic diversity that exists even within many countries (e.g., India and China), these challenges require skill, training, and patience to conquer. The opportunities lie in the competitive advantage gained from the awareness of cultural differences and sensitivities that can be leveraged for commercial gain.
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