Internationalization and technological development in recent decades have drastically changed the business environment. Organizations have expanded around the world, and there is a growing recognition that they are culturally diverse by default – monoculturalism has gone. Working with people from different cultures has become the norm in all sectors. Colleagues, partners and customers come from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds. The cultural context for business is extremely complex.
Most of the problems that arise are a consequence of the way we interpret the world around us. Most of us see our surroundings and the environments in which we live and work from our own individual cultural perspective. Our cultural perspective determines our understanding of normal, appropriate and right and wrong. By instinct and evolution, we are suspicious of anything that is other – that doesn’t match our own cultural experiences. And that is how ethnocentrism, stereotypes, biases and prejudice, and cultural misunderstandings are born.
To be successful in business, you need clear and precise communication. In achieving that kind of communication within your business, with your employees and partners, training your cultural sensitivity and awareness of differences becomes essential.
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What exactly is cultural awareness?
Cultural awareness is the ability to understand how different cultures subconsciously influence people, their thoughts, and their feelings. It is the ability to differentiate beliefs, customs, and values that someone has based on their cultural background.
Understanding these points, and the influence they have on us and others, helps us acquire deeper knowledge about other cultures and develop the necessary interpersonal skills to communicate with people from other cultures more effectively.
This awareness is essential in today’s global economy. It can foster better cooperation between teams in a company, or between individuals in a given team. Employees can understand how to develop better working relationships and they can build strategies to overcome perceived cultural barriers.
In an article published in the Journal of World Business, the authors point out that business internationalization, mobility, virtual teams, and new technologies all require attention and understanding of communication. Culture has a direct impact on communication and therefore on the heart of business.
Culture provides people with implicit knowledge of a set of rules relating to the behavior of individuals, including communication patterns within a specific in-group. Those patterns aren’t universal and are different between different cultures. How you interpret information, even simple statements like “its cold in here”, is a product of your cultural patterns. While some cultures will understand the said statement as a small talk, others will understand it as a suggestion to close the window. Other important cultural characteristics that influence communication are time, values (individualism vs collectivism), orderliness, and conformity.
Low and high context cultures
Edward T. Hall was the first to describe the impact one culture has over the process of communication, which can be applied to business communication also. He created a model, in which he divided cultures based upon the distinction between low and high context cultures. These cultures are also labeled explicit and implicit cultures.
In implicit cultures, the message sent cannot be understood without knowing some background information. On the other hand, explicit cultures exchange direct, transparent messages, which include all the references and information a listener needs. Edward Hall mapped national cultures on a continuum from high to low context. He classified most of the Western cultures as having a low-context communication style, and cultures like African, Arab, Asian, Finish, French-Canadian, etc. cultures, he identified as high-context ones.
In his paper, “Cultural Differences in Business Communication”, John Hooker writes that this distinction has clear implications for business communication. Managers in the USA will transmit norms to their employees through manuals and official memos. For example, if someone wants to take a week off, they should consult with those sources. Employees in Bogota, on the other hand, will wait for the boss’s personal decision regarding their days off.
Contracts highlight another area that can cause misunderstandings. While for many Westerners doing business is synonymous with making deals, in the East doing business may be mostly about making personal relationships. Those connections are based on family or clan connections – Guanxi (relationships of mutual obligation).
Cultural awareness in business negotiation
One of the clearest examples in business where cultural awareness plays the biggest role is negotiating. Research, “International Business: Raising cultural awareness in global negotiating”, shows us that cultural awareness in business communication plays the biggest role in negotiating international agreements. It is needed in both formalities of the agreements, and in expectations around the negotiation itself. For example, Chinese culture values hospitality and getting to know business partners better before anything is agreed upon – eating together is very important, and it may be expected that you will eat together and spend time building social relationship. For an American, explicit, task-oriented person this approach may be seen as a waste of time and unnecessary.
The meaning of the words said is equally subject to misunderstanding. Implicit or relationship oriented cultures may be reluctant to say ‘no’ to your face directly and may even say ‘yes’ while meaning ‘no’! The ‘yes’ may just mean they’ve heard and understood your request rather than agreeing. The real ‘no’ may be a silence or a doubtful look or other non-verbal clue that an explicit communicator may not notice.
Ignoring cultural awareness in business communication can create a variety of problems. Because the two are so closely interconnected, acquiring cultural competence and emphasizing effective communication practices will not only lead to better business performance but will also establish longer-lasting relations and make managers and employees more satisfied.
Cross-Cultural Awareness Training
As time progresses, more and more international businesses acknowledge the importance of cultural awareness and turn to training programs that emphasize the importance of understanding mentioned differences. For example, Country Navigators Cross-Cultural Awareness Training, through which learners can identify their cultural work and communication styles. They can receive in-depth feedback, compare themselves with colleagues, teams, and national profiles and identify differences, receiving expert guidance on how to manage and adapt differences.
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