Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Notes on Communicating in a World of Diversity

Diversity includes all the characteristics that define people as individuals.

Intercultural communication is the process of sending and receiving messages between people whose cultural backgrounds could lead them to interpret verbal and nonverbal signs differently.

Chances are good that you’ll be looking across international borders sometime in your career. Thanks to communication and transportation technologies, natural boundaries and national borders are no longer the impassable barriers they once were.

You will communicate with people from other cultures throughout your career.

The diversity of today’s workforce brings distinct advantages to businesses:
- A broader range of views and ideas
- A better understanding of diverse, fragmented markets
- A broader pool of talent from which to recruit

A company’s cultural diversity affect’s how its business messages are conceived, composed, delivered, received, and interpreted.

Culture influences everything about communication, including:
- Language
- Nonverbal signals
- Word meaning
- Time and space issues
- Rules of human relationships

Culture is a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behavior.

You are influenced by different cultures, each of which affects the way you communicate.

You learn culture both directly (by being instructed) and indirectly (by observing others).

Culture tends to be coherent; that is, a culture appears to be fairly logical and consistent when viewed from the inside. Certain norms within a culture many not make sense to someone outside the culture, but they probably make sense to those inside.

Cultures tend to be complete; that is, they provide most of their members with most of the answers to life’s big questions. This idea of completeness dulls or even suppresses curiosity about life in other cultures.

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge other groups according to the standards, behaviors, and customs of one’s own group.

Xenophobia is a fear of strangers and foreigners.

Stereotyping is assigning generalized attributes to an individual on the basis of membership in a particular group.

You can avoid ethnocentrism and stereotyping by avoiding assumptions and judgments and by acknowledging differences.

Cultural context is a pattern of physical cues, environmental stimuli, and implicit understanding that conveys meaning between members of the same culture.

High-context cultures rely heavily on nonverbal actions and environmental setting to convey meaning: low-context cultures rely on explicit cultures rely more on explicit verbal communication.

Low-context cultures tend to value written agreement and interpret laws strictly, whereas high-context cultures view adherence to laws as being more flexible.

How Cultural Context Affects Business
Executive offices are separate with controlled access.
Workers rely on detailed background information.
Objective data are valued over subjective relationships.
Business and social relationships are discrete.
Competence is valued as much as position and status.
Meetings have fixed agendas and plenty of advance notice.
Executive offices are shared and open to all.
Workers do not expect or want detailed information.
Information is shared with everyone.
Subjective relationships are valued over objective data.
Business and social relationships overlap.
Position and status are valued much more than competence.
Meetings are often called on short notice, and key people always accept.

Legal and Ethical Differences

Honesty and respect are cornerstones of ethical communication, regardless of culture.

Make ethical choices across cultures can seem complicated, but you can keep your messages ethical by applying four basic principles:
- Seek mutual ground.
- Send and receive messages without judgments.
- Send messages that are honest.
- Show respect for cultural differences.

Social Differences

Formal rules of etiquette are explicit and well defined, but informal rules are learned through observation and imitation.

Social norms can vary from culture to culture in the following areas:
- Attitude toward work and success
- Roles and status
- Use of manners
- Concept of time
- Future orientation
- Openness and inclusiveness

Nonverbal Differences

The meaning of nonverbal signals varies widely from culture to culture. For instance, a gesture that communicates good luck in Brazil is the equivalent of giving someone “the finger” in Colombia. When you have the opportunity to interact with people in another culture, the best advice is to study the culture in advance and then observe the way people behave in the following areas.
- Greetings. Do people shake hands, bow, or kiss lightly? Do people shake hands only when first introduced or ever time they say hello or good-bye?
Personal space. When people are conversing, do they stand closer together or farther away than you are accustomed to?
- Touching. Do people touch each other on the arm to emphasize a point or slap each other on the back to show congratulations? Or do they refrain from touching altogether?
- Facial expression. Do people shake their heads to indicate no and nod them to indicate yes?
- Eye contact. Do people make frequent eye contact or avoid it?
- Posture. Do people slouch and relax in the office and in public, or do they sit up and stand straight up?
- Formality. In general, doe the culture seem more or less formal than yours?

Age Differences

A culture’s views on youth and aging affect how its people communicate with another. In US culture, youth is associated with strength, energy, possibilities, and freedom. In contrast, age is often associated with declining powers and a loss of respect and authority.

In cultures that value age and seniority, longevity earns respect and increasing power and freedom. For instance, many Asian societies, the oldest employees hold the most powerful jobs, the most impressive titles, and the greatest degrees of freedom and decision-making authority.

Gender Differences

The perception of men and women in business varies from culture to culture, and these differences can affect communication efforts. In some cultures, men hold most or all positions of authority, and women are expected to play a more subservient role. Female executives who visit these cultures may not be taken seriously until they successfully handle challenges to their knowledge, capabilities, and patience.

Whatever the culture, evidence suggests that men and women tend to have slightly different communication styles. Broadly speaking, men tend to emphasize content in their messages and women tend to emphasize relationship maintenance.

Religion Differences

Religion is a dominant force in many cultures and the source of many differences between cultures. Religion in the workplace is a complex and contentious issue. Some companies allow employees to form faith-based employee support groups as part of their diversity strategies. In contrast, some companies do not allow organized religious activities at their facilities.

Ability Differences

Assistive technologies help employers create more inclusive workplace and benefit from the contributions of people with physical or cognitive impairments. As with other elements of diversity, success starts with respect for individuals and sensitivity to differences.

Adapting to Other Business Cultures

Culture is a complex topic that requires a lifetime commitment to learning and growth. Here are four guidelines that can help all business communicators improve their cultural competency:
- Become aware of your own biases. Successful intercultural communication requires more than just understanding of the other party’s culture; you need to understand your own culture and the way it shapes your communication habits.
- Ignore the Golden Rule. The problem with the Golden Rule is that people don’t always want to be treated the same way you want to be treated. The best approach is to treat people the way they want to be treated.
- Exercise tolerance, flexibility, and respect.
- Practice patience and maintain a sense of humor. A sense of humor is a helpful asset allowing people to move past awkward and embarrassing moments. When you make a mistake, simply apologize, if appropriate, ask the other person to explain the accepted way, and then move on.

Adapting to US Business Culture

Many Filipinos plan to work in the United States. Based on a 2010 statistic, there are about 3 million Filipinos residing in the US. If you are planning to work in the US, here are some key points to remember as you become accustomed to business communication in this country.
- Individualism. Even though teamwork is emphasized in many companies, competition between individuals is expected and even encouraged in many cases.
- Equality.
- Privacy and personal space. People in the US are accustomed to a fair amount of privacy, and this includes their personal space at work.
- Time and schedules. US businesses value punctuality and the efficient use of time.
- Religion. People are expected to respect each other’s beliefs.
- Communication style. Communication tends to be direct and focused on content and transactions.

Improving Intercultural Communication Skills

- Studying Other Cultures
- Understanding social customs
- Learn about clothing and food preferences
- Assess political patterns
- Understand religious and social beliefs
- Learn about economic and business institutions
- Appraise the nature of ethics, values, and laws

Studying Other Languages

English is the most prevalent language in international business, but don’t assume that everyone understands it or speaks it the same way.

Respecting Preferences for Communication Styles

Communication style varies widely from culture to culture. For instance, US workers typically prefer an open and direct communication style. Directness is also valued in Sweden as a sign of efficiency. However professionals form high-context cultures, such as Japan and China, tend to be less direct.

Writing Clearly

When sending written communication to businesspeople from another culture, familiarize yourself with their written communication preference and adapt your approach, style, and tone to meet their expectations. Follow these recommendations:
- Use simple, clear language. Use precise words that don’t have the potential to confuse with multiple meanings.
- Be brief. Use simple sentences and short paragraphs, breaking information to smaller chunks that are easier for your reader to capture and translate.
- Use transitional elements. Precede related points with expressions such as in addition, first, second, and third.
- Address international correspondence properly. Research address elements and salutations commonly used in various countries.
- Cite numbers and dates carefully. Dates in Japan and China are usually expressed with the year first, followed by the month, and then the day.
- Avoid slang, idiomatic phrases, and business jargon.
- Avoid humor and other references to popular culture.

Source: Thill, John V., and Courland L. Bovee. Excellence in Business Communication, 9th edition. USA: Pearson, 2011.

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