The term "intercultural communication" is often used to refer to the wide range of communication issues that inevitably arise within an organization composed of individuals from a variety of religious, social, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. Each of these individuals brings a unique set of experiences and values to the workplace, many of which can be traced to the culture in which they grew up and now operate. Businesses that are able to facilitate effective communication—both written and verbal—between the members of these various cultural groups will be far better equipped to succeed than will those organizations that allow conflicts that arise from internal cultural differences to fester and harden. The failure to address and resolve culturally based conflicts and tensions will inevitably show up in the form of diminished performance and decreased productivity.
The importance of effective intercultural communication can hardly be overstated. Indeed, as Trudy Milburn pointed out in Management Review, communication serves not only as an expression of cultural background, but as a shaper of cultural identity. "Cultural identities, like meaning, are socially negotiated," she wrote. "Ethnic identities, class identities, and professional identities are formed and enacted through the process of communication. What it means to be white, Jewish, or gay is based on a communication process that constructs those identities. It is more than just how one labels oneself, but how one acts in the presence of like and different others, that constructs a sense of identity and membership."
Differences in culture reflect themselves in a variety of ways. For instance, one cultural norm may have a significantly different conception of time than another, or a different idea of what constitutes appropriate body language and personal space when engaged in conversation. But most researchers, employees, and business owners agree that the most important element in effective intercultural communication concerns language. "A great deal of ethnocentrism is centered around language," said John P. Fernandez in Managing a Diverse Work Force: Regaining the Competitive Edge. "Language issues are becoming a considerable source of conflict and inefficiency in the increasingly diverse work force throughout the world…. No corporation can be competitive if co-workers avoid, don't listen to, perceive as incompetent, or are intolerant of employees who have problems with the language. In addition, these attitudes could be carried over into their interactions with customers who speak English as a second language, resulting in disastrous effects on customer relations and, thus, the corporate bottom line."
Small business owners should try and avoid making assumptions about the abilities of another person—either a vendor, employee, or partner—based on ethnocentric assumptions of their own culture's superiority in the realm of communication. "Withhold evaluative statements on foreign communication styles until you recognize that different cultures use different communication methods,"counseled Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt in Effective Business Communications.
Often overlooked in discussion of intercultural communication are the sometimes significant cultural differences that exist concerning the practice of listening. Tips about establishing culturally sensitive verbal and written communication practices within an organization are plentiful, but in many cases, relatively short shrift is given to cultural differences in listening, the flip side of the communication coin. "Codes of conduct that specify how listening should be demonstrated are based upon certain cultural assumptions about what counts as listening," said Milburn. But while the prevailing norms of communication in American business may call for the listener to be quiet and offer body language (steady eye contact, for instance) intended to assure the speaker that his or her words are being heeded, many cultures have different standards that may strike the uninitiated as rude or disorienting. "A person who communicates by leaning forward and getting close may be very threatening to someone who values personal space," pointed out Oregon Business's Megan Monson. "And that person could be perceived as hostile and unfriendly, simply because of poor eye contact." The key, say analysts, is to make certain that your organization recognizes that cultural differences abound in listening as well as speaking practices, and to establish intercultural communication practices accordingly.
In recent years, companies of various shapes, sizes, and in many different fields of endeavor have embraced programs designed to celebrate diversity and encourage communication between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. But according to Milburn, "diversity is one of those concepts that is very context-bound. It does not have a singular meaning for everyone. Companies that try to institute diversity programs without understanding the cultural assumptions upon which these programs are based may find it difficult to enact meaningful diversity policies…. Many companies believe that through sharing they can promote diverse cultural values. Yet, how a company defines sharing may actually hinder its diversity initiatives since some cultures have specific rules about sharing. These rules are enacted in everyday communication practices."
Most business owners recognize that their companies are far more likely to be successful if they are able to establish effective systems of intercultural communication between employees of different religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds. But profound differences in communication styles can also be found within functional areas of a company as well, and these too need to be addressed to ensure that the organization is able to operate at its highest level of efficiency. For example, employees engaged in technical fields (computers, mechanical engineering, etc.) often have educational and work backgrounds that are considerably different from workers who are engaged in "creative" areas of the company (marketing, public relations, etc.). These differences often manifest themselves in the modes of communication that the respective parties favor. "Engineers tend to be introverted and analytical with very logical ways of solving problems," observed one software industry veteran in an interview with Monson. "Those in marketing tend to be extroverted and intuitive. It's a perennial source of possible contention, and really, it's just a matter of style."
Consultants and researchers agree, though, that many differences between these distinct functional cultures can be addressed through proactive policies that recognize that such differences exist and work to educate everyone about the legitimacy of each culture. "Today's dynamic marketplace demands that high-tech companies be able to move quickly, which in turn needs accurate communication, both with customers and among employees. Poor communication can mean loss of morale, production plunges, and perhaps even a failed start-up," said Monson.
SEE ALSO Communication Systems; Globalization; International Markets
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Cox, Taylor, Jr. Cultural Diversity in Organizations. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993.
Faird, Elashmawia, and Philip Harris. Multicultural Management. Gulf Publishing Company, 1993.
Fernandez, John P. Managing a Diverse Work Force: Regaining the Competitive Edge. Lexington Books, 1991.
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Monson, Megan. "Talking to Techweenies." Oregon Business. February 1997.
Murphy, Herta A., and Herbert W. Hildebrandt. Effective Business Communications. McGraw-Hill, 1991.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI