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The phrase cross-cultural communication describes the ability to successfully form, foster, and improve relationships with members of a culture different from one's own. It is based on knowledge of many factors, such as the other culture's values, perceptions, manners, social structure, and decision-making practices, and an understanding of how members of the group communicate--verbally, non-verbally, in person, in writing, and in various business and social contexts, to name but a few.
Like speaking a foreign language or riding a bicycle, cross-cultural communication involves a skill component that may best be learned and mastered through instruction and practice: simply reading about it is not enough.
A balanced cross-cultural training program provides participants with the knowledge, understanding, and skills they need to communicate and cooperate effectively across cultural barriers. Training programs may be conducted either independently of or in tandem with foreign language training.
A Definition of Cross-cultural Communication
The term ¨cross-cultural¨ implies interaction with persons of different cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious, age and class backgrounds. ¨Cross-cultural communication¨ is a process of exchanging, negotiating, and mediating one's cultural differences through language, non-verbal gestures, and space relationships. It is also the process by which people express their openness to an intercultural experience.
Background to Cross-cultural communication
In the past decades the growth of globalization, immigration and international tourism has involved large numbers of people in cross-cultural interaction (also referred to as inter-cultural interaction or international relations) whether they have liked it or not.
This has led to an increased desire and need for knowledge regarding cross-cultural communication on many levels. There is the theoretical field of cross-cultural communication and the applied field of cross-cultural training.
Patterns of Cross Cultural Differences
In a world as complex as ours, each of us is shaped by many factors, and culture is one of the powerful forces that acts on us. As people from different cultural groups take on the exciting challenge of working together, cultural values sometimes conflict. We can misunderstand each other, and react in ways that can hinder what are otherwise promising partnerships. Oftentimes, we aren't aware that culture is acting upon us. Sometimes, we are not even aware that we have cultural values or assumptions that are different from others'.
Different Communication Styles
The way people communicate varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of "yes" varies from "maybe, I'll consider it" to "definitely so," with many shades in between.
Another major aspect of communication style is the degree of importance given to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings. For instance, some white Americans typically consider raised voices to be a sign that a fight has begun, while some black, Jewish and Italian Americans often feel that an increase in volume is a sign of an exciting conversation among friends. Thus, some white Americans may react with greater alarm to a loud discussion than would members of some American ethnic or non-white racial groups.
Different Attitudes toward Conflict
Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the U.S., conflict is not usually desirable; but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. In fact, face-to-face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through whatever problems exist. In contrast, in many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning; as a rule, differences are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favored means to address the conflict.
Different Approaches to Completing Tasks
From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks. Some reasons include different access to resources, different judgments of the rewards associated with task completion, different notions of time, and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together.
When it comes to working together effectively on a task, cultures differ with respect to the importance placed on establishing relationships early on in the collaboration. A case in point, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end as compared with European-Americans. European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task or value relationships more or less; it means they may pursue them differently.
Different Decision-Making Styles
The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example, in the U.S., decisions are frequently delegated -- that is, an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. In many Southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on holding decision-making responsibilities oneself. When decisions are made by groups of people, majority rule is a common approach in the U.S.; in Japan consensus is the preferred mode. Be aware that individuals' expectations about their own roles in shaping a decision may be influenced by their cultural frame of reference.
Different Attitudes toward Disclosure
In some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Keep this in mind when you are in a dialogue or when you are working with others. When you are dealing with a conflict, be mindful that people may differ in what they feel comfortable revealing. Questions that may seem natural to you -- What was the conflict about? What was your role in the conflict? What was the sequence of events? -- may seem intrusive to others. The variation among cultures in attitudes toward disclosure is also something to consider before you conclude that you have an accurate reading of the views, experiences, and goals of the people with whom you are working.
Different Approaches to Knowing
Notable differences occur among cultural groups when it comes to epistemologies -- that is, the ways people come to know things. European cultures tend to consider information acquired through cognitive means, such as counting and measuring, more valid than other ways of coming to know things. Compare that to African cultures' preference for affective ways of knowing, including symbolic imagery and rhythm. Asian cultures' epistemologies tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained through striving toward transcendence.
Recent popular works demonstrate that our own society is paying more attention to previously overlooked ways of knowing. Indeed, these different approaches to knowing could affect ways of analyzing a community problem or finding ways to resolve it. Some members of your group may want to do library research to understand a shared problem better and identify possible solutions. Others may prefer to visit places and people who have experienced challenges like the ones you are facing, and get a feeling for what has worked elsewhere.
Issues in Cross-Cultural Communication
If we look at communication as a process of coding and decoding of messages it is obvious that there are many points in the process where the communication can break down. In particular, successful communication depends crucially on shared culture. When you have communication between people of different cultures, even if they share a common language, things can go wrong. In particular, knowledge of a language does not automatically give you the background knowledge that native speakers assume you share.
Differences in culture affect communication in other ways as well. For example, members of certain cultures are much more likely to use indirection than members of certain other cultures. The Japanese are famous for being indirect, while Americans are famous for being direct. Because Americans aren't used to the level of indirection that Japanese use, the completely misunderstand what's being said.
The Japanese are not big on saying things directly. The Japanese tend to communicate slightly differently and very nicely, often leaving important things unsaid; whereas Americans tend to think they're being subtle when they refrain from grabbing the listener by the shirt.
This difference in approach often leads to mis-understandings between the two cultures. One of the biggest problems is that the Japanese are extremely reluctant to come right out and say "no", a word they generally regard as impolite.
Here is a small example of a cross cultural problem where there is a conversation between an American lady who has come to Japan for a project and a Japanese travel agent, in which the lady tries to book a flight from one Japanese city to another.
LADY: . . . and then we want to take a plane from Point A to Point B.
TRAVEL AGENT: I see. You want to take a plane?
TRAVEL AGENT: From Point A?
TRAVEL AGENT: To Point B?
TRAVEL AGENT: Ah.
LADY: Can we do that?
TRAVEL AGENT: Perhaps you would prefer to take a train.
LADY: No, we would prefer to take a plane.
TRAVEL AGENT: Ah-hah. You would prefer to take a plane?
LADY: Yes. A plane.
TRAVEL AGENT: I see. From Point A?
And so it would go, with arrangement after arrangement. Inevitably, by the time the lady got off the phone, she was a raving madwoman. "What is the PROBLEM??" she would shout, "Why can't these people COMMUNICATE???"
The answer, of course, is that the travel agent was communicating. A person familiar with the Japanese culture would recognize instantly that the agent was virtually screaming, "THERE IS NO PLANE, YOU ZITBRAIN!"
The following helpful chart translating Japanese phrases to American English:
MADE BY JAPANESE PERSON
That is difficult.
That is completely impossible.
That is very interesting.
That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
We will study your proposal.
We will feed your proposal to a goat.
One of the problems with cultural differences is that these underlying messages about the relationship are likely to be misunderstood. For example, the loud, direct style of Americans is often seen by Asians as rude and disrespectful. Yet the Americans are not trying to be rude. Similarly, the Japanese reluctance to say "no" is seen by Americans as shifty and dishonest.
Over coming Cross Cultural Communication
According to diversity management experts, as long as you're aware of the sensitivity and importance of effective cross-cultural communication, you've already won half the battle. Author and communication consultant says that with this principle firmly in mind, you're well-positioned to maximize your cross-cultural communication skills.
Take it slow
A common objection that non-native speakers raise is the speed with which native speakers tend to communicate. Whether you're speaking to someone who is just beginning to learn the language or a long-time English speaker who hails from a different culture, it's helpful to modulate the pace of your speech. However, keep in mind that if you slow down too much, the effect may be insulting.
Practice active listening
An effective strategy for improving cross-cultural communication is what experts call "active listening." This technique involves restating the other speaker's statements to ensure you understand their meaning and asking frequent questions. This is a great way to ensure that important information doesn't "slip through the cracks" in a cross-cultural conversation.
Group information in 'bite-size' pieces
If you stop to think about it, even a single sentence in a conversation between two fluent speakers can contain a great deal of information. That's why cross-cultural communication experts recommend limiting the amount of information you try to convey at one time. Stick to simple, direct instructions and explanations, and try to avoid complex, multi-part sentences.
Watch out for cultural assumptions
If you've ever traveled to a foreign country, you probably realize just how much of our verbal and non-verbal communication relies on a shared set of cultural beliefs and attitudes. When you're speaking to someone from another culture, try to avoid things like jokes, slang, or references that might be confusing or misleading to a non-native speaker.
When in doubt, opt for friendly formality
North American English speakers often adopt a casual, informal approach to conversations, even when they are addressing a stranger or a new acquaintance. This approach may be off-putting or unsettling to someone from a different cultural background. To ensure that you're conveying an appropriate level of respect, use a more formal mode of speaking and gradually scale back the level of formality as the relationship develops.
Cross Cultural Communication Needs
Although cross cultural communication competency can only be truly achieved through cross cultural awareness training, language acquisition, foreign travel and cultural immersion there are some guidelines that can enhance your cross cultural communication skills.
Although emphasis usually lies on being a competent speaker, listening is a key skill that many business personnel do not exercise enough. For cross cultural communication, attentive listening is critical to be able to understand meanings, read between the lines and enable to empathies' with the speaker.
Listening and speaking must work in tandem for effective cross cultural communication. Speaking well is not about accent, use of grammar and vocabulary or having the gift of the gab. Rather, cross cultural communication is enhanced through positive speech such as encouragement, affirmation, recognition and phrasing requests clearly or expressing opinions sensitively.
Large amounts of cross cultural information can be read in people's dress, body language, interaction and behaviour. Be aware of differences with your own culture and try to understand the roots of behaviors. Asking questions expands your cross cultural knowledge.
Man has been created differently and we need to recognize and understand that sometimes cross cultural differences are annoying and frustrating. In these situations patience is definitely a virtue. Through patience respect is won and cross cultural understanding is enhanced.
Flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness are the route to successful cross cultural communication. Understanding, embracing and addressing cross cultural differences leads to the breaking of cultural barriers which results in better lines of communication, mutual trust and creative thinking.
Following these five cross cultural communication needs will allow for improved lines of communication, better cross cultural awareness and more successful cross cultural relationships.