Cultural background plays an important role in people’s outlooks and approaches to their work. Having a diverse workplace is a strength, but it can also present some logistical problems, especially with communication. Decoding cultural differences in communication is the key to preventing chaos and misunderstanding.
What does cultural diversity mean?
According to UNESCO, cultural diversity assumes the presence of a wide variety of cultures, as opposed to monoculture, the global monoculture, or the erasure of cultural differences. The concept of cultural diversity can also mean respect for the specificities of other cultures.
Why is cross-cultural experience important?
In this era of increasingly frequent change, the ability to innovate and change immediately plays a huge role in business. According to Forbes contributor Tendayi Viki, multicultural experiences enhance creativity. This is crucial for companies developing new products.
In addition to boosting creativity, working with people from different cultures raises cultural development, increases the adaptability of team members to new approaches, and makes people more open-minded, ultimately improving communication overall.
What is a culture map and how does it work?
Erin Meyer, an American author and professor, highlights eight scales for visualizing cultural communication differences in her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. Let’s take a look at which of the cultural differences should be considered in business communication.
Each scale has two diametric positions, and countries are analyzed by their degree of compliance with these or other values. We will provide examples of cultural differences in communication based on these scales.
- Leadership: Hierarchical vs. Egalitarian
Leadership is a key part of any project. Leadership comes in two main forms: egalitarian and hierarchical.
Egalitarian leadership means that the boss doesn’t separate themself from their subordinates; they are equal. In hierarchical behavior, a strong boss is a must, and leaders set themselves apart from their subordinates.
According to Erin Meyer, the current trend is for leaders to move towards egalitarianism. Most companies use a blend of both models so they can be more flexible.
Egalitarian Leadership Hierarchical Leadership Team members may openly disagree with their bosses or managers. Team members are not allowed to openly disagree or dispute with their bosses. Team members don’t need approval from their manager while implementing new processes. Team members should always get approval from their managers. Team members can talk to employees of different levels. Team members should respect the hierarchy. For example, a marketing assistant can’t directly reach the CEO of the company; they would have to talk to the head of marketing first. Every team member’s opinion is considered during meetings. Communication flows through the hierarchy.
How to communicate if you’re working in a hierarchical system:
- Communicate with the person above you in the hierarchy
- While emailing someone at a lower hierarchical level, copy their boss. Address the recipient by their last name unless they have indicated otherwise
- If you need to approach a person who has a higher level than you, get permission from your boss first
Now let’s see how communication in an egalitarian system is done:
- Don’t bother your boss if you need to contact someone else from your company
- Skipping hierarchical levels is not a problem
- When writing emails, use first names (this is true for Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, although regional and circumstantial differences may apply.)
NOTE: Before starting to work in a team that uses a mixed approach, discuss methods of communication, especially what is and isn’t appropriate. These strategies to manage cultural differences might help avoid misunderstanding and confusion down the line.
- Decision-making: top-down and consensual
Keep in mind the two types of decision-making: consensual and top-down. Consensual means that decisions are made in groups and by mutual agreement. In top-down decision-making, decisions are made by an individual (the boss).
So, how do you deal with cross-cultural differences in decision-making?
Moving from a top-down decision-making team to a consensual one will create space for expressing opinions. People will start trying to contribute. It will be harder for people to move from a consensual model to a top-down one. Be sensitive to the needs and backgrounds of your team members as you choose your decision-making approach.
- Communication: low context vs high context
Context in communication refers to the understanding of the situation/circumstances in which communication is taking place. There are two types of communication: low context and high context. Let’s learn how to manage cultural differences in communication in each case.
In simple words, low context means that communication is clear and open; it has a literal meaning. This is widespread in individualistic societies, so you can expect it in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as many other Western European countries.
In contrast, high-context communication is nuanced and layered, and it requires more contextual understanding — you need to read between the lines. People using high-context communication utilize non-verbal messages and gestures extensively. This type of communication is more common in collectivist societies. Japan is a particularly good example.
There can be problems when communicators of different types interact. Low-context communicators should remember that their gestures, tone of voice, or facial expressions (which they don’t usually have to pay attention to) could be misinterpreted. High-context communicators should try not to be offended by the direct nature of low-context communicators. They should also remember that their words can be taken at face value.
- Feedback: direct and indirect
Feedback is a necessary aspect of all professional settings. The importance of feedback in a workplace with cultural differences is quite crucial. Please keep in mind that negative feedback always has an impact, so you should be careful when you are providing negative feedback to people from different cultures.
Direct feedback: when feedback is provided directly and frankly, without hiding details or softening the criticism. It’s more common in the U.S. and Western European countries. Example: I don’t think this is the best idea.
Indirect feedback: negative feedback is provided softly, subtly, and diplomatically within positive feedback. Example: It’s an interesting idea.
Let’s look at an example of cultural differences in communication from Exadel. Our colleagues from the U.K. sometimes give feedback like “this looks good, but can we correct this one issue?” This is actually negative feedback; the point is that there is a correction that needs to be made. However, because our Ukrainian colleagues are so accustomed to very direct feedback, they actually see it as exclusively positive.
Wondering how to manage multicultural teams with different types of feedback? Consider the cultural norms of the person you’re speaking to and adapt your behavior accordingly.
- Trust: task-based vs relationship-based cultures
Business or relationships — which should come first? Managing cultural differences in communication involves answering that question. In task-based cultures, business comes first. Business decisions are made quickly and on the basis of measurable competencies. Task-based cultures care more about what you do than who you are (the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Australia).
In relationship-based cultures, trust develops from friendship. This means that in some cases, many meetings may be held before an agreement is reached. Business decisions are made slowly, while partners get to know each other better (this is more common in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures).
At Exadel, we’ve found that our colleagues from Western Europe often prefer to work autonomously, taking direction from what they learn at meetings and then executing their tasks. Our colleagues from India prefer to share responsibility across the team and work more collaboratively, especially after they had gotten to know each other. Our cultural diversity activities, including our Fun Friday tradition, helped our colleagues get to know each other, which was especially helpful for our colleagues from trust-based cultures.
To prevent misunderstandings, task-oriented team members should put more effort and take part in organizing meals and other social events. It’s crucial to avoid talking about business during those meetings. For relationship-based cultures, it’s important to remember that it’s okay if your colleagues leave earlier before you or don’t engage as much in discussing their personal lives at work; it doesn’t mean that they don’t respect you.
- Persuasion: application-first vs. principle-first
The persuasion scale reveals how people from different cultures tend to reason with each other. Under the principle-first approach, theory and statements go first, then a conclusion is made based on argumentation and deduction. While making a presentation, you show the route first and the conclusion at the end. This works for France, Italy, Russia, and Spain.
In the application-first approach, you start with the hypothesis and then present arguments in defense of the statement. While making a business presentation, you start a proposal with a couple of bullet points and a conclusion and then explain the data (you may even be able to skip the information about the origin of data). This approach is commonly used in the U.S., UK, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia.
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. non-confrontational
The next aspect of cultural differences in communication involves discussing the controversy. For confrontational types, disagreeing is a normal process; it’s okay to debate constructively, even with people in senior positions, because it improves discussion overall. Open confrontation doesn’t impact relationships. This is a cultural norm in places like Germany, France, Russia, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy.
In non-confrontational discussions, open disagreement is inappropriate, because it ruins the harmony in the team. Violating this norm would be taken personally. This is true in Japan, India, Mexico, Sweden, China, and Saudi Arabia, among others.
While managing a multicultural team, try to depersonalize the confrontation by sending their ideas and suggestions to a third person, who will make a list with items that will be discussed during a meeting. You can also soften directly confrontational phrases. For example, you could use the phrase “I think there may be some issues with that,” rather than “that’s not a good idea.”
- Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible time
Linear time-oriented cultures use and follow strict deadlines and schedules. It requires efficiency and good organization. In these cultures, time is money, so it must be used wisely. This is true in Germany, Switzerland, the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
On the other hand, flexible time-oriented cultures accept unpredictability, deadline postponement, and the completion of several tasks at the same time. It’s all about multitasking in these contexts. The schedule is not as important as people’s feelings, so you may take as much time as you need without rushing your work or decisions.
According to McKinsey’s report entitled Diversity Matters, ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their competition. While there can be some associated challenges, to quote Erin Meyer, “if you want to succeed, you’ll need to adapt.” Also, keep in mind that appreciating diversity is a soft skill.
We will continue сultural differences in communication topic with an article about Hofstede’s theory.