Special to CSMS Magazine
The article that follows is and analysis made by Kenny Leblanc on lesson for improving Cross-Cultural Communication.
According to the reference for business, “Culture is a complex concept with various nuances, but, simply put, ‘culture’ refers to a group or community who share a common history, background, and experiences that shape the group’s understanding and perception of the world.” Cultural elements include gender, race, national origin, norms, and religion. Culture also includes joining a new group, such as when an individual immigrates to another country or has a change in status, such as getting married, becoming disabled, or acquiring or losing wealth. Because culture can have such a broad definition, an individual can belong to many cultures at once.
In a PBS special titled Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity, Marcelle E. DuPraw and Marya Axner quoted anthropologists Kevin Avruch and Peter Black who explained the importance of culture by stating: “…One’s own culture provides the lens through which we view the world; the logic… by which we order it; the grammar… by which it makes sense.”
In other words, culture is essentially what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves. Thus, when people from different cultures interact, conflict will arise.
Conflict usually arises from misunderstanding words, context and body language. Consequently, the speaker, receiver or audience may act or react in ways that hinder communication, often unaware that he/she is acting and reacting due to cultural influence. Thus, cross-cultural communication can be risky because people are unaware that their cultural values or assumptions, which differ from one another, tend to be a recurring cause of communication difficulties.
Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti wrote in their book Waging Peace in Our Schools that “We all have an internal list of those we still don’t understand, let alone appreciate. We all have biases, even prejudices, toward specific groups.” These biases and dislikes are related to our culture and lack of knowledge about others and their cultures; since communication with people from various backgrounds and cultures is part of everyone’s life in today’s global community, it is of the upmost importance to stop, listen, think, and then speak, because no matter how much of a communicator an individual is, cross-cultural communication always proves to be a hard commodity.
In cross-cultural communication, multiple problems might occur. The majority of these are often rooted in cultural differences stemming from misunderstanding what one party said or did not say. This happens especially when individuals from a high context culture—who value the context of a situation or word instead of being explicit in their language—are communicating with individuals from a low context culture, which is when people are explicit in their language instead of innuendoes. It is quite common to hear someone say, “He doesn’t get it,” “She didn’t understand,” or “That was not what I meant” whether the speaker is an employee, a leader, a media personality or a government official. A 1998 research consortium article from the University of Colorado states that “even normal interaction may involve faulty communication,” and this misunderstanding produce costly results.
Leaders must be cognizant of the words spoken to their constituents because the interpretation of their message will vary depending on the listener’s or recipient’s cultural background. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, committed the ultimate faux pas when she spoke at a youth Christian conference in 2010 and declared that “multiculturalism failed.”
This comment, which lacked development and application, was interpreted differently by the different minority groups in Germany, especially the collectivist immigrant groups; people in collectivist cultures do not consider themselves as individuals but as part and parcel of a larger group (like an extended family). In such cultures, people are interdependent. Because the identity of individuals in a collectivistic society is based on the roles and experiences of the group, comments such as that made by Chancellor Merkel tend to breed resentment and, in some cases, radicalism because people will be reluctant to try to integrate into a society that they feel is prejudiced against them. The question, then, is how can Merkel bring all Germans (natives and immigrants) to understand the true meaning of her words and work toward a successful country, community and unified vision for tomorrow.
As people enter into multicultural dialogue or collaboration at work or through personal interactions, and some sort of confusion caused by cross-cultural differences appears, the following steps formulated from the work of cultural researchers such as Hofstede, Choe and Hall can be taken to reduce these conflicts:
1 – STOP – assess the target audience: based on the specific cultural audience, a message may have to be explicit for the Germans and Americans (low context) or less explicit for the Japanese and Chinese (high context).
2 – LISTEN – take the time to understand the thought patterns and reasonings of associates; people from low context cultures tend to place emphasis on logic and rationality, and people from high context cultures tend to believe that the truth will surface without the use of rationality.
3 – THINK – consider the communication style that can be used that will be the most effective with the target audience; writing and text are best for low context cultures while high context cultures value silence and body language. Also, there is a need to consider the speed of the message.
4 – SPEAK – apply the appropriate method; either speak with feeling for the high context culture and let the message develop without any direct reference to it, or state the facts and their context for the low context culture.
There are major differences in the manner in which people from different cultures communicate. The variations span the realm of directives through speech to the importance of non-verbal communication. As stated by DuPraw and Axner, Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it also involves things like common respect and decency, such as respecting personal distance, considering another’s sense of time, and understanding the differences between working with an individual who multi tasks rather than one who does one thing at a time, or in Hall’s terms, a polychronic individual versus a monochronic individual. These various aspects of an individual’s cultural background bring a different perception to every conversation, and only clear communication between the parties will reduce conflict and the costs of problems by assuring that the lines of communication are open and comfortable for all parties.
Note: R. Kenny Leblanc teaches Communication. She is a PhD candidate majoring in Strategic Leadership at Regent University with a fundamental interest in leadership formation, training, and succession planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org