There are two principles in cross cultural communication.

  1. Learn from a member of that culture
  2. Recognize that cross cultural communication usually occurs once you leave your organization.


Principle One – Learn from a member of that culture

The first principle is the best way to learn what you need to know in preparing for communication with another culture is from members of that culture, not from a book.  Also, sometimes a good source is one of your fellow employees who has spent some time in that culture.  The team member’s insight will be useful and should be solicited, but probably not as useful as from someone who is from that culture.  More on that later.


Principle Two – Recognize that cross cultural communication usually occurs once you leave your organization

The second principle is to recognize that you are engaged in cross cultural communication if the culture is different that your organizational culture.  Cultural differences are not just with other countries or indigenous groups.  Cultural differences could occur with any community whose culture is different from your organization’s culture.


What is Culture?

First, what is culture?  There are many definitions of culture, but one we like is culture is a group of behaviors, values and beliefs held by a group that define how they conduct life/operate.  It’s sort of a common identity that is pervasive yet hidden.  Many people think of culture as country, ethnicity or tribal, but it’s much more extensive.  For example, every organization has a culture.  Your organization has a culture that you quickly learn when you join that organization.  Nobody handed you stone tablets on how the organization’s culture operated, e.g., unwritten rules, how success is achieved, how things really get done, boundaries, but you learned it quickly.  Cultures can be as varied as United States Soccer Moms, Tahiti, the National Football League, a Native American tribe, Wall Street, etc.  Therefore, many of us are members of different cultures at the same time.


One structural model of culture that we like has a water level.  Above the water (this could be a lily pad, or the top part of an ice berg, etc.) are the cultural behaviors.  These are the things we can clearly see above the water such as how people dress, eat, walk, play, space, arts, architecture, music, dance, language, celebrations, etc.  Below the water are the cultural aspects that harder to see and understand.  These “below the water” factors drive the behaviors above the water.  These are called values and core beliefs.


Values determine what is right and wrong and what is desirable versus what is undesirable in a culture.  Laws and rules are derived from these values.  Values would be things like the importance of work, family (the relative importance of children versus elders), money, security, education, religion, morals, ethics, role of government.  The value component of culture has more details.  For example the value of family; two different cultures could say that family is an important value.  One culture might say, “It is important to provide for the family and I do that by working long hours for financial security.”  Another culture might say, “It’s important that I spend a lot of time with my family.  Work is not that important as long as we get by okay.”


Core beliefs would be things like the value of time (Is time limited or is time plentiful?), doing versus being (live to work or work to live?), mastery of nature versus harmony with nature, emotional expression (what level of emotional expression is acceptable?), one truth versus many truths, individual versus group.  It’s a culture where the group is more important than the individual, is it a hierarchical or a horizontal group preference?


When communicating in a different culture, there are two traps to avoid.  The “weirdness” factor and the “ethnocentric” factor.


The weirdness factor is seeing the behavior above the water as weird rather than interesting.  This is sometimes a natural reaction because as children we are taught a series of behaviors (eating, dressing, talking, etc) that are the “right” way to do things.  We get corrected when we step out of those boundaries.  So when we, as adults, are in a different culture and see a behavior that was wrong as a child, we may see that behavior as wrong/weird as an adult.  For example, if we see people eating a salad with their hands and smacking, our tendency may be to see this as sloppy eating, “What a mess! Why aren’t they using a fork?”  Well, if we understood the values and core beliefs of their culture, we could probably find out why they eat that way and find it interesting and not weird.  We may encounter similar weirdness/wrongness feelings if people talk louder, or stand closer, or dress differently, etc


The ethnocentric factor is trying to figure out a different culture from our own lenses.  Our own lenses are frequently all we have since it is life as we have experienced it.  This is a trap that is hard to avoid unless you gain knowledge from members of that culture.  For example, I come from a culture where if someone states that they agree on a plan or a decision it means they are “on board.”  There are other cultures where that doesn’t necessarily mean that because it’s impolite in that culture to disagree.  Or I may come from a culture where it’s impolite to start a meeting 1 hour late, when in fact in that culture, it is impolite to start on time.  Or I may come from a culture where building relationships through informal discussions before conducting business is a waste of time when in fact in that culture it is an important t value.  Or I may come from a culture where two people seem to be shouting at each other from my lenses when in fact that is the volume level they use to conduct business or talk informally.  By the way, all four of the above examples are actual traps we fell into in parts of the South America, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Mid East.


We recently saw a business news article that sighted Wal-Mart was having to make some cultural adjustments for their stores in Germany.  According to this article, the customers in Germany were used to fending for themselves and resented the friendly greetings that they were receiving in the store aisles.  The article also said that as a rule the Germany customer didn’t like it when the employees touched their purchases at the check out stations.  They preferred to pack their own stuff.    One German customer was quoted as saying, “I’m not used to someone stuffing and carrying my bag.  I can do that myself.”  I guess Wal-Mart assumed that everyone liked friendly greetings and help with their bags.  This is the ethnocentric trap again.


Since the weirdness and ethnocentric traps are tough to overcome, we suggest two solutions: 1) above all find cultural differences as interesting and 2) find out what to do about these differences from a stakeholder within that culture regarding #2.  The approach we favor is to have a discussion with these stakeholders.


In that discussion, first, be clear about what your mission/purpose is.  See if they even think if that your mission is worthwhile.  We had some experience where our mission was to communicate with several communities about the health impacts of our air emissions.  We assumed that all the adjacent communities would be interested in that as well.  So we put together meetings about our air emissions and health.  We worked with two cultural groups that we found out too late were not interested in air emissions.  In other words, we had the wrong mission.  One was a very low income community made up of non citizens from Mexico and Central America.  We put together an excellent town hall meeting in Spanish about air emissions and cancer clusters.  They were very polite and asked few questions.  Only later, when we got to know them and their culture, did we recognize that they weren’t worried about the air they were breathing.  They were interested in economics; that is, jobs.  They were also interested in courses in English as a Second Language.  In hindsight, how could we have misread this group?  Well, it was the ethnocentric trap, e.g., “Aren’t most people living around the chemical plant worried about cancer?”  Of course, the answer was, not all.


Another cultural group that we misread was the realtors in this community.  Most of the realtors were not concerned about cancer.  They had grown up in areas with many chemical plants.  They were aware that the air emissions had been reduced significantly over the decades.  Their primary concern was large numbers of managers in our chemical plant/refinery complex who no longer lived in the community because they could easily commute from higher income surrounding communities 20 and 30 miles away.  This was a disappointing trend they had observed over the past several years.  What the “realtor’s cultural group” wanted from us was better opportunities to make a sales pitch for real estate in this community.


So, clearly, in the above two stakeholder cases of non citizens and realtors we did not have the correct mission.  Once you do have an understanding and agreement on the mission it’s time to go to work on how to accomplish the mission.  That is, what is your plan?  Your plan, of course is your goals, which stakeholders you’re going to communicate, your action steps and occasionally evaluating how you are doing regarding the mission.


For example, if your communications mission is to provide information, how do people in that culture get their information?  Group or individual?  Electronic?  Fact sheets? Meetings?  When and where do they like to receive their information.  If it’s a meeting format, how are meetings conducted (see our article on Planning and Preparing for Meetings).


We’ve been involved in some meeting planning consulting work where the church was the primary location to discuss issues and receive information.  This would indicate that religion is a strong value in that culture.  We’ve been involved in some cultural work where information has to be passed down through a hierarchical chain or informal chain.  We know in one case where the cultural leader said, “We keep getting these fact sheets, but we don’t read them.  That’s not how we communicate. Instead, come talk to us.”


If your mission is to hear concerns about an issue, how you do that will depend on many factors.  Again, all of the ones noted above for the mission of receiving information would apply.  In addition you may find that how concerns are expressed will be unique.  Will the dialogue be mostly linear or oblique?  By the way, if you come from a culture with a linear type of dialogue, avoid the trap of seeing oblique dialogue as “rambling”.  Another example, will the concerns be expressed in stories?  If so, how will you interpret the meaning of this story?  Clearly in these instances you would probably need help from a member of that culture.  Another example, will the concerns be highly vocal because face saving is involved or perhaps some other reason?


These are just two simple communication mission examples (providing information and hearing concerns) of culture.  Obviously there are other possible communication missions, e.g., deliver bad news about…, or build consensus around the issue…, or conduct informal two way dialogue about….  The key is to know your stakeholders.  Who are the stakeholders that impact your mission favorably, unfavorably, or in the middle?  Then start a communication plan accordingly.  Cross cultural communication discussed above is just one aspect of doing this well.



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