Communication culture and theorists

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Communication is a process by which you convey your message to someone or a group of people. And if the message is conveyed clearly and unambiguously, then it is known as effective communication. In effective communication, the message you had send would reach the receiver with very little distortion. However, a communication becomes successful only if the receiver understands what the sender is trying to convey. When your message is not clearly understood you should understand that you are facing a barrier to communication. Barriers to effective communication could cause roadblocks in your professional and personal life and it could be one of the major hurdles in achieving your professional goals. One of the major barriers of communication in a workplace is cross-cultural difference.

Cross-cultural Differences at Work

All communication is cultural, it draws on ways we have learned to speak and give nonverbal messages. We do not always communicate the same way from day to day, since factors like context, individual personality, and mood interact with the variety of cultural influences we have internalized that influence our choices. Communication is interactive, so an important influence on its effectiveness is our relationship with others. The challenge is that even with all the good will in the world, miscommunication is likely to happen, especially when there are significant cultural differences between communicators. Miscommunication may lead to conflict, or aggravate conflict that already exists. We make - whether it is clear to us or not - quite different meaning of the world, our places in it, and our relationships with others.

The word “Culture” can be defined in various ways and it has several meanings. Over 164 definitions were defined by two anthropologists,(Kroeber and Kluckhohn,1952). According to Trenholm and Jensen (2000) they define “culture as a set of beliefs and values , norms and customs , and rules and codes that socially defines a group of people, binds them to on another and gives a sense of commonality” Cultural prospective scholar Hofstede (1980) stated that “culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. However, culture is a large and an inclusive subject, therefore it is difficult to define. Based on Hofstede's definition, Beamer (2008) add that culture also relates to learn and shared behaviors, values, norms and material object that encompasses what one creates to express values, attitudes and norms. According to (Terpstra and David 1985) they proposed the meaning of culture in international management context based on Hostede's definition. “Culture is a learned, shared, compelling, interrelated set of symbols whose meaning provides a set of orientations for members of a society.

As the culture represents a particular characteristic that develops within a group of people over a period of time, it means that any person over his lifetime becomes a part of a multitude of cultures: family culture, school culture, professional culture, national culture, etc. Each time a person becomes a part of a certain community he brings along a load of own beliefs and values gained throughout of his life. By bringing in his own culture a person contributes to the formation of a new culture and to the changing of his own. As our research focuses on the influence of culture on the software development teams we are particularly interested in those types of culture that are responsible for influencing behavioral patterns of team members. There are a number of types of culture that can affect teams:

- National Culture

- Organizational or Corporate culture

- Functional/Professional culture

All of the above listed cultures have a certain influence on teams, however some cultures have a stronger effect on how team members work together and interact, others a less strong one.

Several big researches were conducted in the second half of the 20th century targeting cultural dimensions. In 1967, Geert Hofstede has performed a study of the IBM employees worldwide. The aim of the study was discerning the patterns of national behavior. From his studies, that included more than 50 nations he derived four basic dimensions of culture:

- Power distance

- Uncertainty avoidance

- Individualism-collectivism

- Masculinity-femininity

Later on with the help of Michael Bond another dimension was added:

- Long term-Short term orientation.

Hofstede's work became very popular and served as the reference basis for many subsequent cultural studies. Below we will briefly describe Hofstede's and Bond's cultural dimensions.

Power distance indicates the extent to which a society accepts the fact that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally. Uncertainty avoidance indicates the extent to which a society feels threatened by uncertain and ambiguous situations and tries to avoid these situations by providing greater career stability, establishing more formal rules, not tolerating deviant ideas and behaviors and believing in absolute truths. Collectivism is characterized by tight social framework. Members of such a group expect their in-group members to look after them, and in exchange they feel an absolute loyalty towards the group. In individualistic groups, people are expected to take care of themselves. In the feminine society sex roles are more fluid and quality of life is important, whereas in the masculine society men are expected to dominate and performance is what counts. Communication can be described as being high or low context (Hall and Hall, 1990). Countries in which the citizens communicate predominantly through explicit statements (once again, in both text and speech) are categorized as low-context cultures. On the opposite, countries in which body language, facial expressions and the use of silence are more common are described as high-context cultures. In Table 1, an overview of some different countries that are arranged after how high-context each country's culture is presented.

High Context Cultures


Arab Countries






North America

Scandinavian Countries

German Speaking Countries

Low Context Cultures

Table 1 : High and low context cultures (Hall and Hall, 1990)



Men needn't be assertive, but can also assume nurturing roles

Men should be assertive. Women should be nurturing.

Sex roles in society are more fluid.

Sex roles in society are clearly differentiated

There should be equality between sexes

Men should dominate in society

Quality of life is important

Performance is what counts

You work in order to live

Money and things are important

Independence is the ideal

Independence is the ideal

Service provides the motivation

Ambition provides the drive

One sympathizes with the unfortunate

One admires the successful achiever

Small and slow are beautiful

Big and fast are beautiful

Unisex and androgyny are ideal

Ostentatious manliness is appreciated

Table 2: The masculinity dimension (Hofstede,1980)



In society, people are born into extended families or clans who protect the in exchange for loyalty

In society, everybody is supposed to take care of himself/herself and his/her immediate family

“We” consciousness holds sway

“I” consciousness holds sway

Identity is based on the social system

Identity is based in the individual

There is emotional dependence of individual on organizations and institutions

There is emotional independence of individual from organizations or institutions

The involvement with organizations is moral

The involvement with organizations is calculative

The emphasis is on belonging to organizations; membership is the ideal

The emphasis is on individual initiative and achievement; leadership is the ideal

Private life is invaded by organizations and clans to which one belongs; opinions are predetermined

Everybody has a right to a private life and opinion

Expertise, order, duty and security are provided by organization or clan

Autonomy, variety, pleasure, and individual financial security are sought in the system

Friendships are predetermined by stable social relationships, but there is need for prestige within these relationships

The need is for specific friendships

Belief is placed in group decisions

The need is for specific friendships

Value standards differ for in-groups and out-groups (particularism)

Value standards should apply to all (universalism)

Table 3: The individualism dimension (Hofstede, 1980)

Organizational Culture

In many projects it happens that some teams are formed with members drawn from different organizations. Thus, together with their personal traits and cultural values the team members bring along the cultural specifics of the organization they are from. If not taken into consideration, differences in organizational culture may seriously hinder the team's performance. D. Duarte described a case where the team was formed of industry directors and university faculty members. Due to their differences in time perception (semesters in academic environment and fiscal quarters in industry) the team members were unable to coordinate their activities successfully and therefore failed the assigned task (Duarte & Snyder, 2001).

The Impact of Culture on of The Team's Activity

The cultural diversity's influence on productivity has come up with rather mixed results. There is evidence of positive, negative and negligible diversity's influence on performance. Much of the research studying interpersonal processes in the working groups finds that team similarity is positively associated with team effectiveness and interpersonal attraction (Earley & Gibson, 2002), (Hamilton et al., 2003), (Knight et al., 1999). Homogenous teams are generally more cohesive; they experience fewer conflicts; have a faster decision making process (Earley & Gibson, 2002).

When people belonging to different cultures are drawn in one team in order to work together on the same tasks and to solve common problems they may soon realize that their ideas of how should problems be solved and how the work should be done differ significantly from person to person. These divergences of opinions are present in a mono-national team as well but in multi-national teams they are significantly intensified due to differences in culture.

The Potential Difficulties of Cross-cultural Teams

A high variety in expectations and beliefs of the team members about the work or team processes is likely to lead to many misunderstandings and if not taken seriously even to the destructive conflicts in the team. (Laroche, 2003),(Duarte & Snyder, 2001). Literature on international diversity describes a range of difficulties that were encountered by multinational teams working in various environments. I have analyzed the difficulties related to diverse teams that were commonly mentioned in the literature and have grouped those difficulties into three distinct categories: communication, leadership and intra-team processes.


This category deals with difficulties in communication that are encountered by culturally different team members. Quite often the team members need to communicate in language, which, is non-native at least for one party. Such situation may often provoke misunderstandings if the meaning of the foreign word is interpreted differently by the team members . (Johansson et al, 1999). Difficulties in expressing themselves in foreign language may lead to an incentive of switching to a native language whenever possible, which may subsequently lead to a deteriorated communication and team being split into several parties (Laroche, 2003), (Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). Also, research on social networking and interpersonal attraction (Turati 1998), (Triandis, 2003) indicates that within a diverse group people are likely to form smaller sub-groups with people similar in age, professional orientation, social status, nationality or other attributes. Possible implications of such behavior in multinational team are that the team might be split in several one-culture groups, with poor communication lines between each group. Poor contacts between the sub-groups lead respectively to even poorer understanding, conflicts, which finally result in reduced performance (Triandis, 2003).

Another threat present in inter-cultural communication relates to the differences in feedback giving scales, thus a slightly negative feedback given by a member of one culture may be understood as a very negative one by a member of another culture (Laroche, 2003), (Hurn and Jenkins, 2000). The differences in body language, in the range of expressed emotions, the amount of context accepted when transferring information can also lead to misunderstandings among the team members (Laroche, 2003), (Hurn and Jenkins, 2000).

Different spans of silence that are acceptable during the dialogue in different cultures may lead to the situation when one person is dominating the entire discussion, whereas others are not given an opportunity to speak up (Laroche, 2003), (Lewis 2000).


This relates mainly to the differences in leadership styles that various cultures possess. These differences were summarized by Hofstede,in one of the cultural dimensions, namely Power Distance Index (Hofstede, 2001). If a manager and the employee have different cultural background, it is likely that their concept of what a good manager is varies significantly. The same goes for the manager's expectations of a good employee. This may subsequently lead to a clash of opinions, negative attitudes towards each other and respectively decrease in productivity later on. For instance the managerial style of the low PDI cultures can be described as participative, that is the manager belonging to the low PDI culture expects that his subordinate will work mainly independently and will take the initiative without involving much the manager into decision making process. However in countries with high PDI the subordinate expects to have more detailed guidance on the tasks he performs, passing much of the decision making to the manager's shoulders. If low PDI manager and high PDI subordinate are working together without being aware of these differences, the manager may treat the employee who is constantly looking for directions as being professionally incompetent, unable to handle tasks independently. On the other hand the subordinate might see the manager uninterested in his work, elusive, or also technically incompetent, as he seems to be unable to answer the simple questions. (Laroche, 2003).

Apart from different attitudes towards work process, the manager and his subordinate may face difficulties in adjusting to different attitudes towards higher-ups. Thus in highly hierarchical countries the employees expect and place a significant distance between themselves and a manager. The employee may express his deference towards the manager by using the formal greetings, by avoiding the eye contact or addressing only to the manager, when making the presentation. A team member, belonging to a highly hierarchical culture may put too much weight into any suggestions made by managers or higher-ups, regardless of how much or how little thought was actually put by the manager into these suggestions.

These actions even though expected and accepted in a high PDI country may frustrate a low PDI manager and be interpreted negatively by other team members.

Intra-Team Processes

This encompasses misunderstandings that may arise among the team members of a multicultural team during their joint activities. Despite a generally accepted definition of the team as “a group of people working together to achieve certain goal”, the expectations of how should the team function may vary significantly from culture to culture. The team's members may have divergences in opinion about such issues as:

- Problem solving approaches. Team members belonging to cultures with high uncertainty avoidance index (Hofstede, 2001), may require additional planning or information gathering at the earlier stages of the project to avoid future problems. At the same time, the team members, belonging to a less uncertainty avoidant culture may insist on moving on and solving the problems “on the spot” (Laroche, 2003).

- Division of responsibilities. In individualistic countries the team members are expected to take care of their own tasks solely. Therefore the roles within the team are clearly defined and usually there is no such task that would be the responsibility of the whole team - there is always a certain person responsible for its completion. Hence the borders between the responsibilities are quite strict the intervention into somebody's other area of responsibility is usually not well received. Such intervention, in form of comments about the task, or the help offered to the colleague without being asked may be interpreted as doubts about the professionalism of this person (Laroche, 2003).

- The necessary level of cohesiveness between the team members/the amounts of trust needed to work together (Laroche, 2003) (Hurn and Jenkins, 2000). Collectivistic people usually make a larger investment into the team building process than individualistic people.

Therefore collectivistic team members would require more time and effort when going through the trust building stage, than individualistic team members, who do not emphasize personal relationships on the workspace that much.

- Attitudes to Time. Different cultures have different attitudes to time obligations, keeping schedules, being in time for appointments etc. While schedules in some countries are viewed as something strict and unchangeable, other cultures consider them as being more flexible (Lewis 2000), (Hurn and Jenkins, 2000).

In conclusion, the increasing trend of globalization among developing countries has lead to the advent of cross-cultural project activities. But still most of the literature lays little or no emphasis on cultural aspects. The lack of sufficient empirical data in this area triggered our research to investigate and explore cultural factors influencing communication in multicultural teams.

When it comes to empirical studies of cross-cultural team performance we can find mixed research results:

Negative. Some studies found that multinational teams have a negative impact on performance, e.g. multinational teams working in production on a US-based sewing factory showed significantly lower performance compared to their homogeneous counterparts (Hamilton et al, 2003).

Neutral. Other studies found the impact on performance to be insignificant, e.g. (Watson et al, 1993) found no major performance difference in the long-run. They were comparing multicultural student teams working on the long-term university assignments with similar homogeneous teams. (Richard, 2000) also found no performance difference when he compared heterogeneous and homogeneous teams in US financial organizations.

Positive. Finally there is also evidence of positive relationship between team's performance and team's multicultural composition, e.g. in top-management teams of US airline corporations diverse teams generated more creative solutions and those solutions tended to create more financial benefits for the companies as compared to homogenous teams (Hambrick et al, 1996). (McLeod et al. 1996) conducted a controlled brainstorming experiment, showing that ideas produced by heterogeneous teams were judged to be of higher quality than those produced by homogeneous teams.