Communication that takes place across borders is one of the greatest pitfalls and often a reason for business failures in the international milieu. The word border brings up an image of a barbed fence, a barrier, seemingly a roadblock. Likewise, taking a business across ‘borders’ to global shores mandates negotiating an array of fences that could become potential roadblocks. The huge but obvious chasms of differences in language, mannerisms, stereotypes are just the foundational barriers. What deepens the divide and adds to the complexity, but is not always so obvious, is the lack of sensitivity to cultural norms, values, ideologies and ways of working.
Crosscultural communication expertise is essentially about understanding how people from varied cultural backgrounds communicate in similar and different ways among themselves, and how they endeavour to communicate across cultures. Let’s examine why communication which seems so easy becomes complex when working across borders.
How Information Flows
First, communication differs in how information flows in different countries. Countries like the US are highly task-oriented while others, like many of the Asian countries, are more relationship-oriented. Erin Meyer, who is an authority on the subject, educates us on the need to discern communication dimensions based on geography and culture. She highlights a foundational barrier in communication which is both a value and driver and hence a cultural norm. So, there are countries that prefer low context communication and others where high context communication works better.
To explain, low-context communicators are generally explicit, focusing on tasks. They use short, crisp and to the point messages. On the other hand, high-context communicators are generally implicit in nature, focusing on relationships and delivering a message with the usage of gestures and body language along with stories. Some of the low-context countries are Sweden, Germany, USA while examples of high context countries would be Japan, Brazil, India among a few more.
Interpretations May Vary
Secondly, interpretations of the spoken word may vary and that too can make a significant difference as these are based on cultural values and a sense of self. When a British executive says “I was a bit disappointed”, what he actually means is he was very upset and angry; Why? Because the British are very polite and would like to stay polite even under extenuating circumstances; a typical Dutch would interpret it as “It doesn’t really matter”; Why? Because the Dutch are a very direct culture and don’t understand excessive politeness.
The results of this misinterpretation can be catastrophic in the business world. These are subtle clues that one needs to be aware of when interacting across borders; being on the same page is vital to build and sustain a long-term partnership.
Challenges Within A Company
Thirdly, there are even challenges associated within a company. If corporate HOs are country-driven communication approaches which may not be easy to adapt over cultures.
A good example is L’Oréal. As part of its organizational culture, L’Oreal encourages confrontation and debate which is inherently ‘being French’. They even conduct programs to teach employees a structured approach to express disagreement in meetings. However, would this approach work across borders especially in indirect and hierarchal cultures?
For example, in China, engaging in a debate is not considered a healthy workplace behaviour and construed as a loss of productive time not to mention having the audacity to question your boss that can be considered as blasphemy. It is simply not an accepted norm at the workplace. Hence when the French and Chinese teamed up, it was a cultural shock for executives in China and it took time before they were seamlessly integrated into the organisational culture through training.
Eventually, the Chinese could see the positives of this practice and, over a period of time, they not only adapted but also internalised this in their own cultural fabric as they realised the merits of it and observed how these debates were generating diverging opinions and subsequent innovative solutions. In this example, L’Oréal more than engaged their Chinese colleagues and brought them up to speed on their way of working.
Dissolve Crosscultural Communication Barriers
To conclude, it is critical to dissolve such barriers. Understanding different communication approaches across cultures is the need of the hour. To build a robust global organization, global leaders including L&D professionals will need to reflect and create a dipstick check to know whether they are at par with their global contemporaries. Navigating safely through the perils of communication barriers is like wading through deep waters. It is smarter to use life jackets in the form of ongoing crosscultural sensitivity training and coaching than simply to wade in armed only with hope.
Your global colleague, customer, vendor or supplier in another geography will be heartened to see the effort you are making to bridge these gaps to enable business. In the words of Anthony Robbins, “To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are all different in the way that we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others”.