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Communicating across cultures

To stay tuned, make sure you define terms

First Published Jun 08 2012 06:43 pm • Last Updated Sep 11 2012 11:33 pm

Ethan F. Becker, author of "Mastering Communication at Work," says learning how to kiss, bow and shake hands in another culture doesn’t mean you’re ready to do business internationally.

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What is a cross-cultural communications problem?

It’s a breakdown in the communication between cultures. The problem is that people misunderstand the cultural nuances and non-verbal, and verbal methods of sending messages. One person sends a message to another person or group, which receives the message and sends feedback back to the sender. But when people from different cultures interact, the message and the feedback are often misunderstood. For example, I might use a tentative or arrogant tone of voice. To the sender, that tone may seem normal but to the receiver, it may seem arrogant. The result is that the message is lost or misunderstood.

Give some examples of business dealings gone array.

An American client is working with an Indian vendor to plan a year-end company conference. The client decides that he wants the vendor to conduct research to learn more about the target audience. The vendor agrees. But the Indian tone of voice is loud and confident, and the vendor representative says, "Yes, I will definitely do the research. Of course, you would never not do the research." "Definitely" and "never" are pretty strong words, but to the Indian representative, that just means "OK." One month later, the American client asks, "May I see the research report?" The Indian becomes agitated, and in an angry tone insists, "You never asked me to do a report." What happened? Well, they had different understandings of the term "research." To the American, research meant spending $100,000 to hire a firm to interview 1,000 potential target prospects. To the Indian, research meant asking four people in his network about their thoughts.

What’s the fix?

Define the terms. Make sure you take the time to explore which terms could be confused. You won’t always know and you can’t be too safe, so be careful. I’ve seen this happen. If we go back to the example, the American client asks, "Do you know what I mean by research?" The Indian answers, "Yes, of course I do." But that’s not defining terms. The American should say, "So, to make sure we are both using the same definition of the term ‘research,’ might I share that my understanding is that research is spending about $1000,000 to interview 1,000 people? Is that your understanding as well?" Forgetting to shake hands a certain way has less of a negative impact than misunderstanding a term or misinterpreting the other person’s communication.

Other tips?

Companies can help international representatives strengthen their awareness of communication. Help them understand that an e-mail that feels cold and rude may simply represent how emails are written in that culture. Also, it’s important to understand that culture does not always mean different ethnic groups. Every group has its own culture. So these lessons can also apply to the sales team talking with the support team. It’s just that in the international arena, these differences are more prevalent. A lot more prevalent.

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