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The global village predicted many years ago has become a reality. Not only are market borders blurring, but acquisitions, mergers, and alliances are obscuring the nationality of companies and of global citizens living in the present plural society. Those that flourish understand that multicultural differences are a reality, and that they have to develop the capacity to confront and overcome these differences. This paper first attempts to define culture and understand why cultures differ; second, identify the key cross-cultural issues in the present globalised world; and finally, find ways to overcome the issues involving misunderstandings and contrary views resulting from multicultural differences. It also proposes a model which presents a framework for bridging cross-cultural issues in today's world. In the end, the paper highlights its implications for managers, education policy makers and people in general who are at the heart of the society. It concludes that cross-cultural diversity is an opportunity which calls for understanding, appreciating and overcoming it. Global citizens must leverage this diversity to bring in innovation, creativity, peace, harmony and cultural synergy in their personal and professional space.
Culture may be defined as the complex system of values, traits, morals, customs, and norms for behaviour shared by a society. Each country or region has a unique common heritage, joint experience and shared learning background which produces its unique culture. Culture is learned and shaped in childhood and later internalised in adulthood. Computer is often used as a cultural metaphor where people like computers are controlled by operating systems- their culture. Just as computers with differing operating systems have difficulty communicating, and so do people from differing cultures.
Culture has been described (Geertz, 1977) as the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action. People draw a garden, a village, or a collage to describe culture. This validates that culture means different things to different people; culture is multifaceted and so not easy to describe. The iceberg is an analogy of culture perhaps lends itself best to describe culture as it so graphically demonstrates the idea of having both visible and invisible elements. Perhaps, the Titanic, whose crew missed the unseen part of the iceberg, illustrates it best as to what can happen when this is ignored. The visible elements such as dress, language, food, gestures, behaviours, and customs make sense only when we understand what drives them; and these are hidden at the bottom of the iceberg as invisible elements like religious beliefs, experiences, perceptions and family traditions. Problems arise when people tend to interpret others behavior through their glasses tinted with their cultural background.
Various attempts have been made to understand why cultures differ. To understand this researchers have focused on the dimensions of culture which tend to differentiate one culture from another be it in the same country or across boundaries. The cultural anthropologist Edward T Hall has identified context as one of the dimensions. Context is the pattern of physical cues, environmental stimuli, and implicit understanding that conveys meaning between members of the same culture. In low-context cultures, communicators, such as those in North America, Scandinavia and Germany, depend little on the context of a situation to convey their meaning. In high-context cultures, such as those in Japan, China, India and Arab countries, the listener is already contexted and does not need to be given much background information. While people in the low context cultures tend to be logical, analytical, action oriented and value independent, those in high-context cultures emphasise interpersonal relationships, non-verbal expression, physical and social setting and are more collectivist.
Geert Hofstede (1981, 2001), the Dutch management scholar on the other hand differentiates cultures on the following dimensions.
Power distance: degree of inequality in power between a less powerful individual and a more powerful one in which they belong to same social system.
Masculinity vs. feminism: refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders. It opposes a tough masculine to tender feminine society.
Uncertainty avoidance: is the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either comfortable or uncomfortable in unstructured situations.
Individualism vs. collectivism: is the degree to which individuals are supposed to look after themselves or remain integrated into groups usually around the family.
Long term vs. short-term orientation: refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social and emotional needs.
Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner have however, tried to understand why cultures differ by developing a model of culture which shows that there are five orientations covering the ways in which human beings deal with each other.
Universalism vs. Particularism. What is more important - rules or relationships?
Individualism vs. Communitarianism. Do we function in a group or as an individual? Specific vs. Diffuse cultures. How separate we keep our private and working lives?
Affective vs. Neutral cultures. Do we display our emotions?
Achievement vs. Ascription. Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status or is it given to us?
Sequential vs. synchronic cultures. Do we do things one at a time or several things at once?
Internal vs. External control. Do we control our environment or are we controlled by it?
Understanding these dimensions of culture has implications for managers in particular and global citizens in general as to why people communicate, behave, work, and negotiate differently.
Since people bring their own language and culture to the place of interaction, it is of utmost importance to understand cross-cultural issues in the present world which is characterised by market globalisation and an increasingly multicultural workforce. This paper tries to uncover some of the significant cross-cultural issues at different levels.
Culture has an influence on the legal and ethical behaviour as seen in the U. K and the U.S, where someone is presumed innocent until proved guilty. However, in Mexico, Turkey, and India, someone is presumed guilty until proven innocent. These intercultural differences presume importance in case of a legal dispute where individuals and firms move across cultures. Similarly, making ethical choices can be difficult within our own cultures and while communicating across cultures, this issue gets complicate manifolds. For example, bribery is considered illegal in countries like the U.S; in the Middle East it is a baksheesh (a tip), in Mexico una mordida (a small bite), implicitly implying that bribery is something trivial and so can't really be considered illegal.
Again, social exclusion and inequality do present a threat to the global society, more so because it leads to injustice being institutionalized. Besides, there are intercultural social differences too and what is polite in one culture may be considered impolite in another. The question of giving gifts, kind of gift, colour; inquiring about family and their well being; concept of time, they all differ from culture to culture.
The nonverbal differences are another aspect that cannot be overlooked when interacting with people from different cultures. The concept of professional and private space is very important in some cultures, while in others like Asian countries they tend to overlap. Again, the Italians gesticulate a lot which can be misunderstood by others from another culture. The North Americans make a lot of sound and light effect while talking, for example it went pooooof demonstrating with gesture. The French and the Swiss greet each other by kissing cheek to cheek (among women; man and woman) two or three times depending on which country they come from. In other cultures, it is a hug or a handshake, while for yet others, it is just a hello maintaining a certain distance.
Overcoming cross-cultural barriers
Today, success in personal and professional life, whether it is at an individual, group or organizational level requires intercultural awareness and effective cross-cultural communication skills. Intercultural communication has been defined (Knapp, 1978) as interpersonal interaction between members of different groups, which differ from each other in respect of the knowledge shared by their members and in respect of their linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour. Talking, working, negotiating and corresponding with family, friends, colleagues and clients from different cultures can be a minefield. Towards this end, accepting cultural differences and overcoming these barriers across communities both within a nation and across borders becomes an imperative for success.
This paper presents a model of bridging cross-cultural issues. The model shows them as multicultural transformation which is in the in the outer most part, followed by cross-cultural competency, language competency and the innermost is culturally sensitive speaker. It illustrates that the various ways of overcoming cross-cultural barriers are not mutually exclusive, in fact they all complement each other, for example, cross-cultural competency requires language competency. Again for all this to happen, one must be interculturally sensitive.
Interculturally Sensitive Speaker
English Other Languages
Moving to ethno relativism Working with mental models
Another aspect of the model is the outermost section which shows multicultural transformation as an umbrella which encompasses all other ways of bridging the cross-cultural issues. As illustrated, multicultural transformation is shown as a dynamic process, taking place as one moves from the innermost to the outer most sections.
Work place today, much more than ever before, have a greater number of people from varied caste, class, gender, age, educational background and experience. If employees are not adequately prepared for this new workplace reality, misunderstandings and tension among employees and groups can have a negative impact on organizational effectiveness. Cultural groups tend to stick together, causing others to feel rejected. Research (Jha, 2008) has shown that, in general, individuals tend to identify themselves with a particular culture. Identity gives to an individual a sense of belonging- to a caste, a linguistic group, a religious community, or nationality. Multiple identities form an individual's consciousness, imbibed through an individual's formative years. Such an identity nudges individuals to distinguish themselves as belonging to group A and not B. The formation of we and they is thus quite natural outcome of identity making. Having an identity is a psychological need of all of us in order to survive in the world.
This human tendency and need, thus makes it difficult to achieve multicultural sensitivity. However, this is possible when one is made aware of one's own culture and is given to see how it contrasts with others. To this end, this paper suggests that multicultural sensitivity and transformation can be achieved by:
Transforming to ethno relativism from ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the belief in the superiority of one's own race. It is a natural attitude inherent in all cultures, and it causes us to judge others by our own values. While ethno relativism refers to an attitude that absolute standards of rightness and goodness cannot be applied to cultural behavior and that cultural behavior is neither good nor bad, they are merely different.
Working with mental models. It starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth one's internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. Senge (1990) emphasises the discipline of moving beyond prejudices, perception of other cultures which causes us to form stereotypes about groups of people and marking others as outsiders. Working with mental models also includes the ability to carry on conversations where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others, who come from cross-cultural background.
In the present complex and dynamic environment which is also characterized by the world shrinking into a global village, multicultural transformation then becomes an imperative. People living in the present day plural society need to consciously and seamlessly work towards moving to ethno relativism and work on mental models at all times and at all levels, whether individual, group or in the larger context of national and international levels.
Cross-Cultural Competence (3C)
Cross-cultural competence helps in achieving a smoother multicultural transformation than others. The U.S. Army Research Institute engaged in a study of the phenomenon, defines 3C as 'A set of cognitive, behavioral, and affective/motivational components that enable individuals to adapt effectively in intercultural environments' (Abbe et al., 2007). It can be viewed as a combination of three different dimensions (Black and Mendenhall, 1990) that are self maintenance dimension i.e., mental health, psychological well-being, stress reduction and self confidence; relationship dimension i.e., ability to foster relationship with the people of host nations; and perceptual dimension i.e., perceptions of host nation's culture and its social systems. Selmeski (2007) on the other hand has identified eleven different cross-cultural competences: cultural savvy, astuteness, appreciation, literacy or fluency, adaptability, terrain, expertise, competency, awareness, intelligence, and understanding. These competences however, do not operate in vacuum as the distinct skills that are inextricably linked vary in degrees depending on the context in which they are employed.
Think globally, act interculturally is the new slogan. One of the ways of achieving cross-cultural competence is through cross-cultural training which brings in multicultural sensitivity, considered essential for multicultural transformation .The importance of cross-cultural training can be seen from the proliferation of a number of these institutes all over the world. In the context of multinational firms, cross-cultural training is strongly recommended (Tung, 1981, 1982) for expatriates as it leads to better cultural adjustment and work performance in foreign environment. Cross-cultural training plays a pivotal role in the success of employees on international assignments as it bridges the gap between cultures and creates an inclusive work environment with minimal tension and misunderstanding.
Again, cross-cultural training seems to be a viable option not just for expatriates but also managers within a county, as they are increasingly facing the challenge of managing a multicultural team. In this context Cultural Schema Theory described as cultural-specific world knowledge (Razi, 2002) can be used in these training programmes in order to facilitate individuals' adaptation to their respective host-culture environments. Cultural schemas are conceptual structures which enable individuals to store perceptual and conceptual information about their culture and interpret cultural experiences and expressions. If people are not equipped with the appropriate cultural schema, they may not be able to make sense of culturally unfamiliar situations (Malcolm and Sharafian, 2002).
While team members from different communities, countries and ethnic backgrounds bring their own values, perceptions and communication styles to their workplace, managers must learn the skill to foster teamwork, encourage creativity and innovation by leveraging these differences. The cross-cultural training programmes help managers to adapt their managerial style to the unique needs of a multicultural group, motivate them, find common ground, and manage conflicts across cultures. Researchers (Mendenhall, Dunbar and Oddou, 1987) propose a cross-cultural training model where the three dimensions: training methods, levels of training rigour and duration of the training are relative to the degree of interaction and culture novelty. The three approaches proposed are information-giving approach, affective and immersion approach. These approaches though developed for organization seem equally apt for training children at home as well as in schools.
The crosscurrent of cultures is apparent in the English language. Intercultural English has been defined (Carobolante, 2007) as the language that communicates across languages because intercultural is more than international. Learning the concepts of Intercultural English can improve relationships, collaboration and productivity. It thus ensures that messages are understood around the globe, and helps avoiding misunderstandings. American English, for example, has indeed incorporated in its dictionary, vocabularies from other languages, making it richer than ever before. The German, French, Italian, Britain, Native American and lately Hispanic influence has greatly enriched the language, truly making it an intercultural one.
However, this paper is trying to bring forth how international English which has become the language of the business world has neutralized age, seniority and respect that existed earlier. While writing letters, for example, Respected Sir / Madam has given place to a simple Dear Sir / Madam. The question that one needs to ask is that, if it really conveys the same meaning or has it somewhere diluted and neutralizing the effect that Respected conveyed. 'In fact, rather than bringing us all together', as Fukuyama predicted, 'the spread of English as the global lingua franca, of accessible, inexpensive high technology, and of universal fashion and communication has led to chaos as often as calm. These developments have incited envy, resentment, and anger among traditional societies' (Hanson, 2003). This shows that languages spoken in different countries are as important as English. This often makes the English-speaking countries unconsciously ethnocentric and arrogant, thus, disregarding the importance of foreign language skills and viewing the language problems as just mechanical and manageable, that could be easily solved.
Research has proved that monolingualism decreases an individual's capacity to comprehend and appreciate other languages and cultures. The ability to speak the language of other countries definitely gives an edge to people on a personal capacity as well as in their business. Languages help global citizens better negotiate, access the society, and become more readily accepted by people of other cultures. Languages are also the vehicle for learning cultures. Language training should be a must. This can be encouraged by parents at home, teachers in school, and definitely by managers in organizations. In the English speaking countries people wish Goodnight while departing in the evening, while in the French-speaking countries they wish Bonne Soirée (have a nice evening) and not Bonne nuit (Goodnight is used in only intimate relationships). Bon appétit (have a good meal) in French has no equivalent in English speaking culture.
In the context of developing language competencies, it is suggested (Gundara, 2007) that developing intercultural bilingual education not only ensures linguistic diversity but also enhances cultural understandings. Teacher education institutions have a major role to play in enhancing intercultural awareness, because as multipliers, the teachers affect the lives of many generations of those they teach. One of the advantages of a multicultural teaching force is that it not only enables the negotiation of complex social values in higher education institutions but also provides multilingual skills.
Interculturally sensitive speaker
This paper emphasizes that it is imperative that people living in plural society must have keen listening and observation skills because it enables them to become interculturally sensitive speakers. Such a speaker avoids using jargons and slang in written as well as oral communication and uses simple words that are easily understood by all. When the soft drink, Fresca, was being promoted by a salesperson in Mexico, she was surprised that her sales pitch was greeted with laughter, and later embarrassed when she learned that fresca is slang, and has many connotations in Mexico. Using acronyms and idioms can confuse counterparts unnecessarily, particularly if they are not native speakers or from the same cultural background. Expressions like touching base (origins in baseball), it went for a sixer (origins in cricket), surely cannot be understood by cultures that don't play these sports. On the same grounds, an interculturally sensitive person would be very conscious of what they say and how they say and where they say. A report commissioned by the Scottish Executive indicates that 25% of Scots are racists and about half of them do not consider the use of terms like 'Paki' to be racist' as quoted by Gundara in Some current intercultural issues in intercultural issues in multicultural societies. Similarly, many Indians call people hailing from the Northeastern part of the country as Chinkies, and worse are often insensitively unconscious of their racisms.
Multicultural transformation or cultural imposition
In the first half of the twentieth century, North America was considered the melting pot of the world where immigrants willingly or unwillingly lost their identities, apparently to be like others. But in the process these immigrants lead two lives. This dichotomy between what they are and what they pretended to be had deep psychological impacts on them. Today there is a cultural transformation and it represents a tossed salad as the immigrants maintain their identity; Jewish men wear yamulka, Muslim women their headscarf, Sikh a turban and Christians their cross.
'I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any' (Mahatma Gandhi). Clearly, cultural transformation does not mean giving up one's identity, language, and tradition. Nor does it mean people giving up their elegant traditional attire for western clothes in the name of business outfit, all while working in their own home country. People are so eager to be considered as one of them that they are sometimes ready to modify their names too, so that they can relate better and enable them to pronounce the names. It is a fact that people from different cultures are different in their looks, experience, and background; this does not make them less effective and efficient than those living in any other parts of the world. Strategic organizations must leverage this diversity and gain a competitive edge over others.
This paper is also trying to bring forth how in the name of cultural transformation, there is actually a cultural imposition. In the present globalised economy, the hegemony of the powerful economies is so strong that it influences the languages too. Today in many parts of the world children as well as adults are interested in learning only American English and the American accent. The letter s has more or less disappeared from words like organisation, and the letter z has taken its place. Even as the researcher types this word in Microsoft Office Word Document, it keeps underlining, highlighting and reminding that the word has been spelt incorrectly. It will not be long before even school teachers will start considering only letter z as the correct spelling. Impersonal expression Come again has taken the place of very personal expression I beg your pardon.
The situation is not very different in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs) companies. The employees live in the host country, work in the host country, but talk like the parent company and have an identity (referring to the change of name) of the parent company for eight hours a day. Then for the next sixteen hours they slumber back in the host country culture. Further research needs to be carried out to study its effect on the psychology of the BPO employees. This cultural imposition is again visible in the marketing strategies. Mother's Day and Father's day celebration are creeping into other countries. It is a day, when we must make it a point to visit our mother, our father, and shower them with gifts as a gesture of love. What one forgets that in those cultures, everyday is a Father's and Mother's day as they are well knit, and often joint families. Similarly, TGIF (Thank God It's Friday) is something alien to other cultures where most of the organizations are working even on Saturdays, so people cannot really relate to it.
Recognizing, understanding and appreciating cross-cultural differences ultimately promotes clearer communication, breaks down barriers, builds trust, and strengths relationships among people from different cultures. This paper emphasizes that the process of bridging cross-cultural issues in the present globalised world must start right from childhood days from home to school and move on to the community, and later to the organizations. Again in these institutions the cross-cultural issues are simpler at the national level; they become more complex as these institutions become global. A family or a community having members from different parts of the world; an international school; a multinational, or a global organization poses cross-cultural issues of a far greater complexity than a national level institution ( be it a family, school, community or an organization). Such a complex task as bridging cross-cultural issues, thus, needs to be addressed in an integrated way where all global citizens become partners in this endeavour.
This has implications for education policy makers. Research suggests (Gundara, 2007) the importance of constituting a good definition for intercultural education. Unless this is done, at least one billion people will continue to be by-passed by the positive aspects of globalisation, and bridging cross-cultural barriers will remain a chimera. Again in marginalised communities learning and teaching should be progressive and not constrained neither by traditional or by a certain community-centric curriculum, because it tends to inhibit questioning. Similarly, history and social studies need to be continuously reviewed, thus keeping them in-tune with the contemporary needs of societies. To achieve this, it is imperative that we have the big picture in mind. Piece-meal efforts made by NGOs, state, national, international organizations tend to be short-term measures; only an integrated system could enhance the intercultural competencies of people within multicultural society.
Finally, it has implications for managers too. While team members from different communities, countries and ethnic backgrounds bring their own values and communication styles to their workplace, managers must learn the skill to foster teamwork, encourage creativity and innovation by leveraging this cultural diversity. Leaders in the present global economy have another challenge as Geert Hofstede said 'Learning to become an effective leader is like learning to play music: besides talent, it demands persistence and the opportunity to practice. Effective monocultural leaders have learned to play one instrument. Leading in a multicultural and diverse environment is like playing several instruments.'
Thus every individual needs to come out of one's own self-made shell protected in the name of culture; they need to acquire multicultural sensitivity ,cross-cultural competence, learn and appreciate the language and culture of others and consciously become interculturally sensitive speakers thus recognizing the co-existence of others around them leading to multicultural transformation. Interacting with hightened awareness will set in the realisation that cross-cultural diversity once seen as an issue is not a barrier any more, but enriching. In the present age of globalization where organizations are facing an environment which is increasingly unstable, dynamic and complex, it is time for managers to recon and accept cross-cultural diversity as an opportunity; not a problem to overcome and thus leverage it to create cultural synergy, creativity, sensitivity to other cultures, flexibility and ultimately self enrichment.