Cultural Differences and Communication

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In a world where globalisation is advancing at a rapid rate, having a solid understanding of cultural differences in the business environment is becoming increasingly necessary. With each culture following different values, rituals, heroes and symbols, our expectations and opinions of each other can often be incorrect and can in the worst case, cause offence.

In a world where globalisation is advancing at a rapid rate, having a solid understanding of cultural differences in the business environment is becoming increasingly necessary. With each culture following different values, rituals, heroes and symbols, our expectations and opinions of each other can often be incorrect and can in the worst case, cause offence. Worryingly, cultural misunderstandings can also impact the success and efficiency of an organisation.

Erin Myers, author of The Culture Map highlighted some of the most significant differences in cultures. The concept of High and Low context is a theory which describes an interesting difference between many Western and Eastern cultures. In America, the UK and Germany the culture is very low context, this means that the language used is quite literal, and people from these countries overall say what we mean with words. Alternatively, many eastern cultures are described as high context, for example Japan, China and Middle Eastern. High context describes the action of people who may not always communicate what they mean with literal language. In these cases, the receiver of the information must read more of the context to understand the information. This difference can cause challenges for global organisations when a low context individual fails to ‘read between the lines’ when communication with a high context person or when a high context person is looking for further information than the words that are spoken by a low context person.  The borders between West and East are sometimes less defined, with cultures such as French and Spanish representing more high context cultures. This only serves to highlight the importance of gaining a better understanding of each culture.

Another important difference to consider is whether a country is hierarchical or egalitarian. Often organisations that are egalitarian and expand into more hierarchical countries find that it is difficult to extend their ‘flat’ company culture, for example into places such as China, Japan and Korea. When working with or in a different country to your own, it is also vital that you ensure you are appropriate when giving upward feedback - is it acceptable to criticize those who are more senior than you? Or could it cause offense and affect your progression within the business?

The way that information is presented also varies between cultures. In America and the UK, presentations quickly get to the point and focus on the product/service. However, in China for example, they prefer to have the big picture first. This is also evident in the way we write our names. In the west we have our first name and then our surname, whereas in China they write their surname first. Their address is written big picture to small picture (country first). This is an important consideration  when presenting products and services in different countries, you must ask yourself how THEY would like to receive the information.

Globalisation is providing incredible opportunities for cross border working and the ability to interact with so many people from all over the world. We must ensure we are mindful of other cultures and make sure we are aware of what is appropriate and how they prefer to be communicated with to enhance the chance of achieving successful outcomes

Thomas products help people to understand communication styles through better understanding of yourself and others around you. Our tools and training help people to improve and modify their behaviour and communication in different environments and cultures. If you would like to learn more about how we can support your global organisation, please contact us on hongkong@thomasasia.com