Communicating Across Cultures
There are thousands if not millions of books and articles written about effective communication across the world. The forms of communication would include verbal, written and non-verbal.
In a recent training on US Culture for Saudi employees of an American company, I had the following sample of an email that I had them react to:
Subject: XYZ Project Message: Please provide update on above project asap.
The reactions of the Saudis included that the "email was very rude", "not respectful", and "I would just delete this email unless it is from my boss".
Working in an intercultural world, would the above reactions drive the business results that an organization would want? Absolutely not! Working across cultures requires the following:
1. Self awareness - understanding oneself and one's cultural preference. In the example above, the Saudi cultural is a relationship based culture and emails tend to also build on that. So instead of going immediately to the "what's needed", they would prefer that the email starts with a greeting and some small email talk.
2. Awareness of the other - when we debriefed this example, we discussed how the culture of the US is task oriented and time is viewed as money. From a US cultural perspective, it is being respectful to be to the point as to not waste the person's time.
3. Analyzing and interpreting the situation from both perspectives - after gaining the above two points, one can analyze and have a different perspective. So in the example above, the Saudis will realize that the American sending the email did not mean to be disrespectful at all but in the contrary very respectful. It is an opportunity to see situations through a different cultural lens.
4. Responding in a culturally appropriate fashion - What ends up happening with companies working internationally is they create a hybrid culture - a culture that meets somewhere in the middle.
Without the awareness of the different cultures, breakdown in communication resulting in a negative impact to the bottom line will happen.
Do you have examples of similar situations to share?
"Cultural Agility" for Successful Business
Working with my clients, I often hear how there are breakdowns in communications due to cultural differences. Lately, I remembered an incident that happened to my husband and I many many years ago. I am just analyzing it and figuring out what went wrong.
It was a late Sunday afternoon before the era of cell phones. We were visiting people we had just met in a city that was about 60 miles away from the little southern town where we had just moved to. On the way back home, our car broke down and we had to walk many blocks to find a house that would let us in to use their phone to call. Well thinking from an Egyptian culture lens, we thought we would use our call to call our new found friend (they have an Egyptian background as well). We called and explained what happened and the response was: "what do you want me to do for you?" This was a total shock for us as the Egyptian culture appropriate response would have been, I will be right over and I will take care of you. After we hung up, my husband and I looked at each other and said -"Why did we call him in the first place?" We then called a tow truck and took the car to the dealership and rented a car.
As an Interculturist, my husband and I were operating from a group mindset - that is what the Egyptian culture or Arab culture is in general. The group takes care of its members and they are there for them. Our friend however was operating from an individualist cultural orientation - that is what the US culture tends to be. Each person is responsible for him/herself. This incident could have impacted the friendship negatively as the expectations were not met but luckily it did not.
Here are suggestions to overcome breakdown in communications due to cultural differences :
1. Be self aware - what is your culture dimensions' preference? In this situation, my husband and I were operating from a group orientation.
2. Figure out where the other person might be coming from. Our friend was operating from an individualist orientation.
3. Identify the gap in communication and decide if you want to bridge this gap and if so, how will you do it. In our situation, it took us a while to get over but now looking back I can see what happened.
My clients working in different cultures face these challenges. To be successful, one has to follow the 3 suggestions above. At Khalifa Consulting, we call this "cultural agility." How agile are you? How agile is your team and colleagues?