Intercultural Communication in the Workplace Paper
Intercultural Communication in the Workplace
Elaine Winters, a noted subject matter expert on Cultural differences and awareness says, “Few people seem to feel the need to truly face the underlying issues that cloud even the simplest of delicate, and frequently confusing, cross-cultural interactions.” There is no doubt as to the many cultural groups around the world with different patterns of behavior, values, and rules. In the workplace, not establishing intercultural communication can be a very expensive mistake. This paper will review a scenario in which intercultural communication is an issue. In the process, we will diagnose the situation and provide strategies to help facilitate intercultural competence and avoid intercultural misunderstandings.
XYZ simplistic incorporated located in San Francisco California, has just transferred, and promoted a new Director of Operations from their International office in India. Although his full name is Rajamid Sodhi, he goes by the name Roger in hopes to better fit in within the American culture. Reporting to Roger is a young American woman named Jill Scott. Jill is originally from California and has only been with XYZ for three months and is eager to prove her self worth and value. Upon meeting Roger for the first time, she had a sense of a passiveness and studiousness. She immediately assumed Roger was a type “B” personality, smart, friendly, reserved, polite, and deeply religious. She also assumed Roger was married and not interested in romance. Roger and Jill talk for a little while about politics in America and interesting things to do in San Francisco and the Bay area. Being ambitious and seeing this as a potential networking opportunity, Jill takes the initiative and offers to show Roger around the city. She feels this will be a way to pick his brain and create a sense of camaraderie.
Women from California are often more aggressive and straightforward than other women around the world. Men and women here in America often do things together, like going to lunch, social gatherings, movies and so forth just as friends. There is no implied “date” under such circumstances.
Roger, on the other hand, thinks, “Ah! This American woman is interested in me and wants to date and perhaps is conspiring to marry me.” In Roger’s culture, men and women do not see each other casually. Women do not go with a man unescorted and are not aggressive in their behavior. If men and women meet together, and especially if a woman offers to meet a man, then the goal of such a meeting is romantic, with implications that the two are committed to each other. Roger had developed the notion, from watching American movies and TV shows in his own country, that American women are eager to become physically involved with anyone and have what people in his country consider “loose morals.” He sees this as an opportunity to have a potential sexual relationship with Jill. He thinks all American women are like that, and since Jane is an American woman, he assumes that is true about her, too.
In fact, as soon as Jill began to talk to Roger, he began to notice her friendliness, smiles, and attention toward him. Although Jill did not mention a husband, she wears a ring on her left hand, but Roger did not notice it, or if he did, he did not pay much attention to it. After all, Jill was “coming on” to him. He was especially attuned to such behavior because he was lonely, had not been around a woman for a while, and was hoping for a date with someone.
During the drive to lunch, Jill is shocked at Roger’s “forward” behavior. He puts his hand on her leg. Given her appalled reaction, she has no idea why he is doing that. She pushes him away causing him to swerve. Roger is at first convinced that she is only teasing him, but then when she confronts him and explains that she is not interested, that she has a husband, he realizes that she isn’t interested in him after all and is frustrated and confused. Jill is angry and concerned that this will effect her position at work.
In this scenario intercultural conflict has occurred. Roger and Jill are both guilty of stereotyping, assuming, and being ignorant of each other’s true cultures. They have conveyed through both verbal and body language an interest and both were misunderstood. According to Knapp (1998) Intercultural conflict is defined as “the perceived or actual incompatibility of values, norms, processes, or goals between a minimum of two cultural parties over content, identity, relational, and procedural issues.” Neither person communicated effectively. Nor was the message being conveyed received as the communicator intended, creating a sense of vulnerability and frustration. Knapp-Pothoff (1997) has explained that sense of vulnerability and frustration experienced by both parties in a passage from the book titled Cultural, Organizational, or Linguistic Causes of Intercultural Conflicts. A Case Study.
“To operate effectively and successfully in the global marketplace, business managers increasingly require tools and skills which help them to be “interculturally professional,” to amalgamate divergent cultural attitudes, beliefs and behavior, and, eventually, to forge a powerful, effective international team.
Stereotyping due to overgeneralization is a common occurrence, especially among those who only interact with another culture infrequently. When we are faced with uncertainty, the human mind naturally seeks to create some order or system from what we observe. This is especially true when we may feel vulnerable due to uncertainty. So the mind creates its own set of rules or generalizations – which may be based on some surface realities and patterns – but which fail to account for real experience and individual variation. What’s more, since we may feel threatened, the human mind can presume negative motives or draw negative inferences from the generalizations we create/observe, which forms then forms the basis of prejudice.”
This being said, there are other elements in this situation that have relevance such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (affection or love), implicit personality theory, Schutz’s needs for affection, for control, disconfirmed expectations, selective perception as influenced by motivation, stereotyping, and assuming. The assumption that the other person possesses both the knowledge of the linguistic forms of communicative action as well as the body of knowledge to which they refer may be false. Misunderstandings on the level of the message, the propositional meaning based on the content (both verbal and nonverbal), and still more on the level of the metamessage, the implied social meaning which is usually only indirectly expressed – i.e. the assessment of the social relationship – (Bateson 1972) are a frequent consequence.
A thing to note is people are programmed differently and have no, or at best, a superficial knowledge of each other. If a need to communicate arises, they have to be able to communicate in such a way as to make their meaning clear and not provoke misunderstanding. The intended message may be anything from a major negotiation to a simple sales pitch. The goal of the communicator is to deliver a well-defined reaction to the message being conveyed. The challenge is to get the desired reaction from the communication. To do this one must practice cultural awareness and effective communication. Successful intercultural communication is a fine balancing act that requires enthusiasm and a willingness to overcome cultural barriers.
In business matters, it is essential to understand the values and traditions that shape people’s behavior. If one were aware of the possibility of dealing with people from other cultures, then learning a few words of their language would certainly demonstrate your respect and willingness to develop rapport. Be aware of non-verbal aspects of communication also – gestures and symbols are not universal and mistakes are inevitable, by the other person and by the communicator.
It is often necessary to check meanings and paraphrase were applicable. Practice active listening skills. Holstede (1997) provides a very descriptive way of understanding their ethnocentrism.
“When people cross cultural boundaries they take their “taken for granted” meaning structure from their home culture. They continue to choose actions consistent with the way they’ve been enculturated and continue to interpret actions in terms of their own enculturation. It is inevitable that communication across cultural boundaries will break down unless people can recognize their ethnocentrism and take action to overcome it. They must recognize that one culture cannot be judged by the standards of another. This is cultural relativism and it is important to understand this concept and not judge others according to your values.”
Other strategies outlined by The Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research – Houston (2005) that can facilitate ones interaction with a nonnative speaker include:
• Try not to focus on differences in pronunciation and accent. Concentrate on what the other person is saying by looking directly at her/him so that you can use all of the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues. As time goes on, you naturally will find it easier to understand the other person.
• If you do not understand, try to identify exactly what the missing word(s) or piece of information is. For example, rather than saying, “I don’t follow you at all!” you might repeat the part of the sentence you understood and then ask the other person to fill in the rest.
• Request that words that are difficult for you to understand be translated if available.
• Vocal Cues: Do not use an excessive amount of ‘filler’ words (sayings or words repeated often), sounds such as “uh, um” or use lengthy pauses during conversation. The listener will lose interest in what you are saying and will become bored.
• Non-verbal Language: Nine-five percent of our communication is non-verbal, which includes: eye movement, tone of voice, posture, facial expressions, and hand gestures. When talking to someone keeping eye contact without staring shows a sense of confidence. Be aware of non-verbal communication and keep it consistent with your message.
• Create an Atmosphere of Openness: To establish a good relationship with customers and create a comfortable atmosphere be attentive to the number of interruptions. Give your customer/acquaintance your undivided attention by not keeping physical barriers (such as desks) between you. Avoid trying to communicate in a busy area and keep your focus on the listener.
If the situation with Jill and Roger had been replayed, utilizing the strategies listed above; the scenario would have played out significantly different. Roger now being interculturally competent would have known that in America relationship development between a man and a woman in a corporate setting, outside of work, would not necessarily have been romantically related. Jill, also being interculturally competent, would have been aware of India’s practices and would have approached the situation delicately and would have expanded on a purely work related outing. Both would have practiced active listening and paraphrased, given vocal cues and would have made sure the meaning behind the words were understood by the other individual. By being culturally aware, open, and receptive to verbal and non-verbal communication and clues both individuals would have avoided the intercultural misunderstanding.
According to Korean scholar, Myung-Seol Park, to grasp the way in which other cultures perceive the world, and to know the assumptions and values of these perceptions, is to gain access to the experiences of other human beings. Understanding hidden cultural differences is becoming increasingly important as we enter into the twenty first century. Of course, acquiring intercultural understanding, practicing effective communication and active listening helps us in our interaction with the people of other countries. To businesses, gaining intercultural competence may be key to leveraging their bottom line.
Bateson, G. (1972): Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.
Holstede, G. (1997) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind – Intercultural Co-operation and its Importance for Survival”. AMED USA Retrieved on Wednesday, July, 26, 2006 from: http://cvc3.coastline.edu/modelcourses/ahoppenagao/lectures/week_1a.htm
Knapp, K. (1997): “Cultural, Organizational, or Linguistic Causes of Intercultural Conflicts? A Case Study”. In: J. Beneke (ed.): Thriving on Diversity. Bonn: Dümmler, 117-134.
Knapp, K. (1998): Interkulturelle Kommunikationsfähigkeit – Linguistische Perspektiven. München: Judicium. Retrieved on July 26, 2006 from: http://depts.washington.edu./ciderweb/
Zafar J. and Syed (2005) Articles of Intercultural Interest: Its about time.The Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research – Houston. Cultural Diversity Group Retrieved on July 26, 2006 from: http://www.sietarhouston.org/articles/articles2.htm