Archives for Cross Cultural Issues

Cross Cultural Communication, Lesson 1

7 August 2009

Me:  “Is it hot or cold outside?”

Answer:  “Yes”

____________________

I can’t tell you how many times, while living in China, I asked a question, and the person replied with an answer that demonstrated they completely missed the meaning of my question. Of course, that’s to be expected.  Even when two people come from the same culture and speak the same language, communication can be a challenge.  When two people speak different languages, you know there will be additional challenges.  The real problems are those that surface when you don’t even know they exist!   

When you know a person doesn’t understand, it may be a challenge, but at least you know where you stand.  With that knowledge, you can figure out how to deal with the communication issue.  The real problem comes when you think something has been communicated, but you find out too late that the person did not understand. For instance, perhaps you find out the engineer did not understand to make x change in a certain widget, but only after 200,000 of those widgets have been molded.  A simple failure of communication can amount to a costly mistake. 

The most frustrating situation is when the other person thinks they understand, and they lead you to believe they understand, and you rely on that understanding, but at some point (usually at the point when you realize you are headed for total disaster), you realize they had no idea what you were talking about!  The short lesson here is not only to communicate clearly, but also not to leave anything to chance. 

A friend told me a story that illustrates this.  His boss from Europe was coming to see the China operation.  As part of the activities, they planned to host a banquet for the boss.  The boss did not eat pork.  So, the employee gave very careful instructions to the caterer that they were not to serve any pork or shellfish.  On the night of the banquet, they arrived to a fabulous scene.  There were ice sculptures, tiny lights, greenery.  And each table had a suckling pig, complete with red Christmas lights for the eyes. 

free image Food-Chinese-whole-roast-suckling-pig-just-like-a-big-crispy-duck This image is compliments of webcreationz

 

Ah, COMMUNICATION!  I have a few suggestions that may help:

_________________ 

1. Make it safe for a person to tell you they don’t understand

To an American, this may sound really dumb, but don’t forget the cultural context.  Americans are trained and ingrained by our culture and by our education to have opinions and express them, to communicate, to clarify, and to disagree.  An American managers expects her employees to question, clarify, and keep asking until they understand.  American managers, therefore, sometimes fail to realize that this is not the norm in some other cultures. 

An employee from an Asian culture may expect to take orders without question.  He may come from an educational system where students were expected to memorize and reiterate, where questions were discouraged.  He may feel that to question a supervisor, even to clarify an instruction, implies disrespect.  I suggest that a manager confronted with language barriers to communication needs to go out of her way not only to communicate to employees that their questions are welcome, but also to display the utmost patience and tolerance when employees ask questions.  Use open and welcoming body language.  Sighs, displays of impatience, or anger in response to questions will shut down communication from an employee who is shy about asking legitimate questions to clarify instructions. 

As a corollary, employees who are eager to please may also stop their questions too quickly.  They want to believe they understand, so they may leave the interaction before they actually have enough information.  Before you allow an employee to leave, make them explain back to you their understanding of what you said.  This allows an opportunity to train them more in what you are expecting. 

2. Make no assumptions about what the person knows

In the USA, children learn certain, standard things.  For instance, they are taught not only multiplication tables, but probably also the “ABC song” and how to brush their teeth.  Thus, when you are speaking to an adult American, you can probably assume that he knows what a toothbrush is or that he knows how to put things in alphabetical order.  Can you assume this about a person from X nationality?  Since you don’t have a common bed of cultural understanding, no you cannot!  How do you know what you can and cannot assume? 

It may seem time consuming in the beginning, but one foundation of good cross cultural communication is to make no assumptions.  You ought to specify what you mean by every aspect of the communication from the most trivial to the most profound.  Even if it is redundant, it will lay a firmer foundation for all future communication.

An example from my own life is that in college, one of my math professors began the semester with the proofs that “a = a”, and then “if a = b then b = a, and then “if a = b, and b = c, then a = c”.  And so on.  Laying down of these proofs may have taken only the first fifteen minutes of class, but review of these simple postulates provided a firm foundation for all else that happened that semester. 

A personal example of disaster from making assumptions was that I accompanied a friend one time to pick up an evening gown she was having tailored for a gala.  A master tailor in an off-site location had sewn her gown from expensive silk and then delivered it back to the storefront shop for the customer to pick up.  All that remained to be done was for the girl running the shop to measure and hem the gown.  My friend was impatient, and new to China.  She spoke no Chinese, and the girl in the shop spoke virtually no English.  The girl asked for clarification of how long my friend wanted the gown.  My friend held the hem a few different places.  Here, or here.  The girl seemed confused and asked some more questions.  We were, indeed, both tired.  My friend grew impatient.  “Just get it right!’ she exclaimed.  Well, what do you mean by that?  She made an assumption that the girl knew what to do and how to do it.  But when we returned to pick up the finished product, the dress was several inches too short, and it could not be repaired because the hem had been cut off.  In other words, simple clarification of every instruction, leaving nothing to chance, is very important. 

3. Don’t skimp on the translator

The communication really is only so good as the language skill of both parties.  A translator is limited by his or her previous life experience.  If the translator has never seen a phreonopoly and has no idea what that is, he is going to have difficulty translating that term into his native language.  You may choose to hire a translator who already knows what a phreonopoly is, or you may choose to train your translator.  Either way, you must have a translator who is educated about the topic you are discussing. 

The translator must also be dedicated to providing honest facts in a culturally sensitive way.  In other words, she must bring a degree of diplomacy in how she phrases things, but a commitment to faithful rendering of your message.  Given the significance of the role of translator, the person needs to be someone you can trust to act and speak in your best interest, to tell you not only what is said but also the sometimes hidden meanings in the communications.  The translator thus has a pretty high level function which many people underestimate.  Let’s put it bluntly: this person needs to be someone who can keep things in confidence and who will be loyal to the company and to the manager in the information they convey and the manner in which they communicate it. 

4. Use every tool in your toolbox by supplementing with nonverbal communication

Words are just one tool.  Make use as well of diagrams, pictures, pantomimes, dictionaries, and books.  There are many people who get along just fine in other cultures, never learn to speak the language, merely by being resilient and by using nonverbal communication for many needs.  For example, I was telling an expat friend one time about my frustration about not being able to pronounce the Chinese word for “restroom” properly, so that no one could understand what I meant.  She replied, “I always find that jumping up and down works really well.”  She did a little demonstration, and I saw that it was a very effective way to communicate the idea.  Be creative!

Where Is The Love?

I was the only person in the bicycle shop.  I was at the counter, making a small purchase and chatting with the owner, when a young man pulled into the parking lot, driving a loud motorcycle.  He strode up to the counter and asked if the bike shop had some part he needed for his motorcycle.

The young fellow was tattooed and pierced.  He had on makeup and had spiked hair.  He was wearing all black Goth clothes.  He made his purchase and left.

This was in the early 1980’s in rural South Carolina.  Around these parts, we didn’t see much of that type of dress.  It brought to mind television images I had seen of neo-Nazis and hate groups.  Not saying a word, I just looked at the owner with an expression that said, “I can’t believe what I just saw!”

“Yeah,” he replied, smiling wryly at me.  “But I had long hair when I was a kid.  And because of the way people responded to me when I was a teenager, I swore that I’d never judge anybody by their appearance.”

His comment brought me back around to remembering my own teenage years, when I, too, didn’t always dress or act as my elders would have preferred.

Lesson learned.  What the bicycle shop owner did was to help me see that young man not as an “other,” but as an individual who might be like me, a person who had hopes and fears and motives for his dress.  A person like me, for whom I might have compassion.  That bike shop owner reminded me not to  prejudge, not to put people in separate categories of “otherness”, merely based on superficial appearances.

How often do we judge each other based on superficial things like appearance, associations, or first impressions?

I find I tend to judge many things by their appearance.  Rap music, for example.  I have a preconceived notion, not entirely unjustified, that much of it is about banal and exploitative of women.  I don’t normally listen to rap, but like that young man, some of it should not be judged solely by its appearance.  Check out these lyrics (below) of “Where Is the Love” by the Black Eyed Peas :

 

What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you’re bound to get irate, yeah
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that’s exactly how anger works and operates
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
Take control of your mind and meditate
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y’all, y’all
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love
The love, the love
It just ain’t the same, always unchanged
New days are strange, is the world insane
If love and peace is so strong
Why are there pieces of love that don’t belong
Nations droppin’ bombs
Chemical gasses fillin’ lungs of little ones
With ongoin’ sufferin’ as the youth die young
So ask yourself is the lovin’ really gone
So I could ask myself really what is goin’ wrong
In this world that we livin’ in people keep on givin’
in
Makin’ wrong decisions, only visions of them dividends
Not respectin’ each other, deny thy brother
A war is goin’ on but the reason’s undercover
The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug
If you never know truth then you never know love
Where’s the love, y’all, come on (I don’t know)
Where’s the truth, y’all, come on (I don’t know)
Where’s the love, y’all
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love, the love, the love?
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I’m gettin’ older, y’all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin’
Selfishness got us followin’ our wrong direction
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity
That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ under
That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ down
There’s no wonder why sometimes I’m feelin’ under
Gotta keep my faith alive till love is found
Now ask yourself
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love?
Sing wit me y’all:
One world, one world (We only got)
One world, one world (That’s all we got)
One world, one world
And something’s wrong wit it (Yeah)
Something’s wrong wit it (Yeah)
Something’s wrong wit the wo-wo-world, yeah
We only got
(One world, one world)
That’s all we got
(One world, one world)

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What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you’re bound to get irate, yeah
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that’s exactly how anger works and operates
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
Take control of your mind and meditate
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y’all, y’all
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love
The love, the love
It just ain’t the same, always unchanged
New days are strange, is the world insane
If love and peace is so strong
Why are there pieces of love that don’t belong
Nations droppin’ bombs
Chemical gasses fillin’ lungs of little ones
With ongoin’ sufferin’ as the youth die young
So ask yourself is the lovin’ really gone
So I could ask myself really what is goin’ wrong
In this world that we livin’ in people keep on givin’
in
Makin’ wrong decisions, only visions of them dividends
Not respectin’ each other, deny thy brother
A war is goin’ on but the reason’s undercover
The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug
If you never know truth then you never know love
Where’s the love, y’all, come on (I don’t know)
Where’s the truth, y’all, come on (I don’t know)
Where’s the love, y’all
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love, the love, the love?
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I’m gettin’ older, y’all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin’
Selfishness got us followin’ our wrong direction
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity
That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ under
That’s the reason why sometimes I’m feelin’ down
There’s no wonder why sometimes I’m feelin’ under
Gotta keep my faith alive till love is found
Now ask yourself
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Where is the love?
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love?
Sing wit me y’all:
One world, one world (We only got)
One world, one world (That’s all we got)
One world, one world
And something’s wrong wit it (Yeah)
Something’s wrong wit it (Yeah)
Something’s wrong wit the wo-wo-world, yeah
We only got
(One world, one world)
That’s all we got
(One world, one world)

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Cross Cultural Negotiation

An article in today’s New York Times highlights the need for cultural sensitivity on the part of those who engage in cross cultural negotiations.  According to the article, Japan’s “research” whaling program has lost most of its public support and only creates a few hundred jobs.  But there’s a major problem to backing off of whaling:   As long as whaling activists force Japan into an “us versus them” posture, the government cannot take any other position but to oppose change.  The article states:

Mr. Kodaira [a legislator who leads the group that asserts it will maintain whaling] said he recognized that Japan’s whaling industry had shrunk to just a few hundred jobs, mostly paid for by the government. However, he said that the recent aggressive actions of foreign environmental groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has clashed with Japanese whaling ships near the Antarctic, had fanned popular ire, making it impossible for Tokyo to compromise now.

“We can’t change now because it would look like giving in,” said Mr. Kodaira, a lawmaker from the northern island of Hokkaido. “Will we have to give up tuna next?”

Just like most countries, “Japan doesn’t like being told what to do,” said Isao Kondo, 83 [a retiree in a village that has traditionally engaged in whaling].

Think about it!  Sometimes getting one’s way really does depend on being able to see the other side and to meet those needs!

Uncertainty Buffets Japan’s Whaling Fleet

By MARTIN FACKLER

Published: May 15, 2010

Some in Japan criticize Antarctic hunts, which they say invite international criticism that threatens the more limited coastal hunts.

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