Business leaders know that intercultural savvy is vitally important – not just because they have to deal increasingly with globalization, but also because the work force within their own national borders is growing more and more diverse. Every culture has rules that its members take for granted. Few of us are aware of our own biases because cultural imprinting is begun at a very early age. And while some of culture’s knowledge, rules, beliefs, values, phobias and anxieties are taught explicitly, most is absorbed subconsciously.
Of course, we are all individuals, and no two people belonging to the same culture are guaranteed to respond in exactly the same way. However, generalizations are valid to the extent that they provide clues on what you will most likely encounter – and how those differences impact communication. Here are three such generalizations.
Cultures are either high-context or low-context. Every aspect of global communication is influenced by cultural differences. Even the choice of medium used to communicate may have cultural overtones. It has been noted that industrialised nations rely heavily on written messages than oral or face-to-face communication. Definitely, US, Canada, UK and Germany exemplify this trend. But Countries like Japan, which has access to the latest technologies, still relies more on the latter. The determining factor in medium preference may not be the degree of industrialization, but rather whether the country falls into a high-context or low-context culture.
Cultures are either sequential or synchronic. Some cultures think of time sequentially – as a linear commodity to “spend,” “save,” or “waste.” Other cultures view time synchronically – as a constant flow to be experienced in the moment.
In sequential cultures (like North American, English, German, Swedish, and Dutch), business people give full attention to one agenda item after another. In many other parts of the world, professionals regularly do several things at the same time.
In synchronic cultures (including South America, southern Europe and Asia) the flow of time is viewed as a sort of circle – with the past, present, and future all inter-related. This viewpoint influences how organizations in those cultures approach deadlines, strategic thinking, developing talent from within, and the concept of “long-term” planning.
Cultures are either affective or neutral. With much angry gesturing, an Italian manager referred to the idea of his Dutch counterpart as “crazy.” The Dutch manager replied. “What do you mean, crazy? I think this is a viable approach. And calm down! We need to analyze this, not get sidetracked by emotional theatrics.” At that point, the Italian walked out of the meeting.
In international business dealings, reason and emotion both play a very critical role. Which of these dominates depends upon whether we are affective (showing emotions) or emotionally neutral in our approach. Members of neutral cultures do not telegraph their feelings, but keep them carefully subdued. In cultures with high affect, people show their feelings plainly by laughing, smiling, grimacing, scowling – and sometimes crying, shouting, or walking out of the room. This doesn’t mean that people in neutral cultures are cold or unfeeling. But in the course of normal business activities, they are more careful to monitor the amount of emotion they display. According to a research, emotional reactions were found to be least acceptable in Japan, Indonesia, UK, Norway and the Netherlands – and most accepted in Italy, France, the US and Singapore. In today’s global business community, there is no single best approach to communicating with one another. The key to cross-cultural success is to develop an understanding of, and a deep respect for, the differences.