Intercultural business communication
Intercultural business communication
THE BASIC FORMS OF COMMUNICATION
As David Glass is well aware, effective communicators have many tools
at their disposal when they want to get across a message. Whether writing
or speaking, they know how to put together the words that will convey their
meaning. They reinforce their words with gestures and actions. They look
you in the eye, listen to what you have to say, and think about your
feelings and needs. At the same time, they study your reactions, picking up
the nuances of your response by watching your face and body, listening to
your tone of voice, and evaluating your words. They absorb information just
as efficiently as they transmit it, relying on both non-verbal and verbal
The most basic form of communication is non-verbal. Anthropologists
theorize that long before human beings used words to talk things over, our
ancestors communicated with one another by using their bodies. They gritted
their teeth to show anger; they smiled and touched one another to indicate
affection. Although we have come a long way since those primitive times, we
still use non-verbal cues to express superiority, dependence, dislike,
respect, love, and other feelings.
Non-verbal communication differs from verbal communication in
fundamental ways. For one thing, it is less structured, which makes it more
difficult to study. A person cannot pick up a book on non-verbal language
and master the vocabulary of gestures, expressions, and inflections that
are common in our culture. We don't really know how people learn non-verbal
behaviour. No one teaches a baby to cry or smile, yet these forms of self-
expression are almost universal. Other types of non-verbal communication,
such as the meaning of colors and certain gestures, vary from culture to
Non-verbal communication also differs from verbal communication in
terms of intent and spontaneity. We generally plan our words. When we say
"please open the door," we have a conscious purpose. We think about the
message, if only for a moment. But when we communicate non-verbally, we
sometimes do so unconsciously. We don't mean to raise an eyebrow or blush.
Those actions come naturally. Without our consent, our emotions are written
all over our faces.
Why non-verbal communication is important
Although non-verbal communication is often unplanned, it has more
impact than verbal communication. Non-verbal cues are especially important
in conveying feelings; accounting for 93 percent of the emotional meaning
that is exchanged in any interaction.
One advantage of non-verbal communication is its reliability. Most
people can deceive us much more easily with their words than they can with
their bodies. Words are relatively easy to control; body language, facial
expressions, and vocal characteristics are not. By paying attention to
these non-verbal cues, we can detect deception or affirm a speaker's
honesty. Not surprisingly, we have more faith in non-verbal cues than we do
in verbal messages. If a person says one thing but transmits a conflicting
message non-verbally, we almost invariably believe the non-verbal signal.
To a great degree, then, an individual's credibility as a communicator
depends on non-verbal messages.
Non-verbal communication is important for another reason as well: It can be
efficient from both the sender's and the receiver's standpoint. You can
transmit a non-verbal message without even thinking about it, and your
audience can register the meaning unconsciously. By the same token, when
you have a conscious purpose, you can often achieve it more economically
with a gesture than you can with words. A wave of the hand, a pat on the
back, a wink—all are streamlined expressions of thought.
The functions of non-verbal communication
Although non-verbal communication can stand alone, it frequently works
with speech. Our words carry part of the message, and non-verbal signals
carry the rest. Together, the two modes of expression make a powerful team,
augmenting, reinforcing, and clarifying each other.
Experts in non-verbal communication suggest that it have six specific
• To provide information, either consciously or unconsciously
• To regulate the flow of conversation
• To express emotion
• To qualify, complement, contradict, or expand verbal messages
• To control or influence others
• To facilitate specific tasks, such as teaching a person to swing a golf
Non-verbal communication plays a role in business too. For one thing, it
helps establish credibility and leadership potential. If you can learn to
manage the impression you create with your body language, facial
characteristics, voice, and appearance, you can do a great deal to
communicate that you are competent, trustworthy, and dynamic. For example,
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has developed a homespun style that puts people
at ease, thereby helping them to be more receptive, perhaps even more open.
Furthermore, if you can learn to read other people's non-verbal messages,
you will be able to interpret their underlying attitudes and intentions
more accurately. When dealing with co-workers, customers, and clients,
watch carefully for small signs that reveal how the conversation is going.
If you aren't having the effect you want, check your words; then, if your
words are all right, try to be aware of the non-verbal meanings you are
transmitting. At the same time, stay tuned to the non-verbal signals that
the other person is sending.
Although you can express many things non-verbally, there are limits to
what you can communicate without the help of language. If you want to
discuss past events, ideas, or abstractions, you need words—symbols that
stand for thoughts — arranged in meaningful patterns. In the English
language, we have a 750,000, although most of us recognize only about
20,000 of them. To create a thought with these words, we arrange them
according to the rules of grammar, putting the various parts of speech in
the proper sequence.
We then transmit the message in spoken or written form, hoping that
someone will hear or read what we have to say. Figure 1.1 shows how much
time business people devote to the various types of verbal communication.
They use speaking and writing to send messages; they use listening and
reading to receive them.
Speaking and writing
When it comes to sending business messages, speaking is more common than
writing. Giving instructions, conducting interviews, working in small
groups, attending meetings, and making speeches are all important
activities. Even though writing may be less common, it is important too.
When you want to send a complex message of lasting significance, you will
probably want to put it in writing.
Listening and reading
It's important to remember that effective communication is a two-way
street. People in business spend more time obtaining information than
transmitting it, so to do their jobs effectively, they need good listening
and reading skills. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners.
Immediately after hearing a ten-minute speech, we typically remember only
half of what was said. A few days later, we've forgotten three-quarters of
the message. To some extent, our listening problems stem from our
education, or lack of it. We spend years learning to express our ideas, but
few of us ever take a course in listening.
Forms of Business Communication
Similarly, our reading skills often leave a good deal to be desired.
Recent studies indicate that approximately 38 percent of the adults in the
United States have
trouble reading the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, 14 percent cannot
fill out a check properly, 26 percent can't figure out the deductions
listed on their paycheques, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate.
Even those who do read may not know how to read effectively. They have
trouble extracting the important points from a document, so they cannot
make the most of the information presented.
College student are probably better at listening and reading than are
many other people, partly because they get so much practice. On the basis
of our own experience, no doubt realise that our listening and reading
efficiency varies tremendously, depending on how we approach the task.
Obtaining and remembering information takes a special effort.
Although listening and reading obviously differ, both require a similar
approach. The first step is to register the information, which means that
you must tune out distractions and focus your attention. You must then
interpret and evaluate the information, respond in some fashion, and file
away the data for future reference.
The most important part of this process is interpretation and evaluation,
which is no easy matter. While absorbing the material, we must decide what
is important and what isn't. One approach is to look for the main ideas and
the most important supporting details, rather than trying to remember
everything we read or hear. If we can discern the structure of the
material, we can also understand the relationships among the ideas.
BASICS OF INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
As Bill Davila knows, the first step in learning to communicate with
people from other cultures is to become aware of what culture means. Our
awareness of intercultural differences is both useful and necessary in
today's world of business.
Person may not realise it, but he belongs to several cultures. The most
obvious is the culture he shares with all other people who live in the same
country. But this person also belongs to other cultural groups, such as an
ethnic group, a religious group, a fraternity or sorority, or perhaps a
profession that has its own special language and customs.
So what exactly is culture? It is useful to define culture as a system of
shared symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for
behaviour. Thus all members of a culture have, and tend to act on, similar
assumptions about how people should think, behave, and communicate.
Distinct groups that exist within a major culture are more properly
referred to as subcultures. Among groups that might be considered
subcultures are Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles, Mormons in Salt Lake
City, and longshoremen in Montreal. Subcultures without geographic
boundaries can be found as well, such as wrestling fans, Russian
immigrants, and Harvard M.B.A.s .
Cultures and subcultures vary in several ways that affect intercultural
• Stability. Conditions in the culture may be stable or may be changing
slowly or rapidly.
• Complexity. Cultures vary in the accessibility of information. In North
America information is contained in explicit codes, including words,
whereas in Japan a great deal of information is conveyed implicitly,
through body language, physical context, and the like.
• Composition. Some cultures are made up of many diverse and disparate
subcultures; others tend to be more homogeneous.
• Acceptance. Cultures vary in their attitudes toward outsiders. Some are
openly hostile or maintain a detached aloofness. Others are friendly and co-
operative toward strangers.
As you can see, cultures vary widely. It's no wonder that most of us need
special training before we can become comfortable with a culture other than
DEVELOPING INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS
When faced with the need (or desire) to learn about another culture, we
have two main approaches to choose from. The first is to learn as much as
possible—the language, cultural background and history, social rules, and
so on—about the specific culture that you expect to deal with. The other is
to develop general skills that will help to adapt in any culture.
The first approach, in-depth knowledge of a particular culture, certainly
works. But there are two drawbacks. One is that you will never be able to
understand another culture completely. No matter how much you study German
culture, for example, you will never be a German or share the experiences
of having grown up in Germany. Even if we could understand the culture
completely, Germans might resent our assumption that we know everything
there is to know about them. The other drawback to immersing yourself in a
specific culture is the trap of overgeneralization, looking at people from
a culture not as individuals with their own unique characteristics, but as
instances of Germans or Japanese or black Americans. The trick is to learn
useful general information but to be open to variations and individual
The second approach to cultural learning, general development of
intercultural skills, is especially useful if we interact with people from
a variety of cultures or subcultures. Among the skills you need to learn
are the following:
• Taking responsibility for communication. Don't assume that it is the
other person's job to communicate with you.
• Withholding judgment. Learn to listen to the whole story and to accept
differences in others.
• Showing respect. Learn the ways in which respect is communicated—
through gestures, eye contact, and so on — in various cultures.
• Empathizing. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Listen
carefully to what the other person is trying to communicate; imagine the
person's feelings and point of view.
• Tolerating ambiguity. Learn to control your frustration when placed in
an unfamiliar or confusing situation.
• Looking beyond the superficial. Don't be distracted by such things as
dress, appearance, or environmental discomforts.
• Being patient and persistent. If you want to accomplish a task, don't
give up easily.
• Recognizing your own cultural biases. Learn to identify when your
assumptions are different from the other person's.
• Being flexible. Be prepared to change your habits, preferences, and
• Emphasizing common ground. Look for similarities to work from.
• Sending clear messages. Make your verbal and non-verbal messages
• Taking risks. Try things that will help you gain a better understanding
of the other person or culture.
• Increasing your cultural sensitivity. Learn about variations in customs
and practices so that you will be more aware of potential areas for
miscommunication or misunderstanding.
• Dealing with the individual. Avoid stereotyping and overgeneralization.
DIFFICULTIES OF INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
The more differences there are between the people who are communicating,
the more difficult it is to communicate effectively. The major problems in
inter-cultural business communication are language barriers, cultural
differences, and ethnocentric reactions.
If we're doing business in London, we obviously won't have much of a
language problem. We may encounter a few unusual terms or accents in the 29
countries in which English is an official language, but our problems will
be relatively minor. Language barriers will also be relatively minor when
we are dealing with people who use English as a second language (and some
650 million people fall into this category). Some of these millions are
extremely fluent; others have only an elementary command of English.
Although you may miss a few subtleties in dealing with those who are less
fluent in English, we’ll still be able to communicate. The pitfall to watch
for is assuming that the other person understands everything we say, even
slang, local idioms, and accents. One group of English-speaking Japanese
who moved to the United States as employees of Toyota had to enroll in a
special course to learn that "Jeat yet?" means "Did you eat yet?" and that
"Cannahepya?" means "Can I help you?"
The real problem with language arises when we are dealing with people who
speak virtually no English. In situations like this, we have very few
options: We can learn their language, we can use an intermediary or a
translator, or we can teach them our language. Becoming fluent in a new
language (which we must do to conduct business in that language) is time
consuming. The U.S. State Department, for example, gives its Foreign
Service officers a six-month language training program and expects them to
continue their language education at their foreign posts. Even the Berlitz
method, which is famous for the speed of its results, requires a month of
intensive effort — 13 hours a day, 5 days a week. It is estimated that
minimum proficiency in another language requires at least 240 hours of
study over 8 weeks; more complex languages, such as Arabic and Chinese,
require more than 480 hours. Language courses can be quite expensive as
well. Unless we are planning to spend several years abroad or to make
frequent trips over an extended period, learning another language may take
more time, effort, and money than we're able to spend.
A more practical approach may be to use an intermediary or a translator.
For example, if our company has a foreign subsidiary, we can delegate the
communication job to local nationals who are bilingual. Or we can hire
bilingual advertising consultants, distributors, lobbyists, lawyers,
translators, and other professionals to help us. Even though Vons operates
within the United States, management hires bilingual personnel to help its
Hispanic customers feel more comfortable.
The option of teaching other people to speak our language doesn't appear
to be very practical at first glance; however, many multinational companies
do, in fact, have language training programs for their foreign employees.
Tenneco, for example, instituted an English-language training program for
its Spanish-speaking employees in a New Jersey plant. The classes
concentrated on practical English for use on the job. According to the
company, these classes were a success: Accidents and grievances declined,
and productivity improved.
In general, the magnitude of the language barrier depends on whether you
are writing or speaking. Written communication is generally easier to
Barriers to written communication
One survey of 100 companies engaged in international business revealed
that between 95 and 99 percent of their business letters to other countries
are written in English. Moreover, 59 percent of the respondents reported
that the foreign letters they receive are usually written in English,
although they also receive letters written in Spanish and French. Other
languages are rare in international business correspondence.
Because many international business letters are written in English,
North American firms do not always have to worry about translating their
correspondence. However, even when both parties write in English, minor
interpretation problems do exist because of different usage of technical
terms. These problems do not usually pose a major barrier to communication,
especially if correspondence between the two parties continues and each
gradually learns the terminology of the other.
More significant problems arise in other forms of written communication
that require translation. Advertisements, for example, are almost always
translated into the language of the country in which the products are being
sold. Documents such as warranties, repair and maintenance manuals, and
product labels also require translation. In addition, some multinational
companies must translate policy and procedure manuals and benefit plans for
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