Intercultural communication can be like high-wire dancing. Nimble steps and an understanding of your partner are essential to avoid calamity, says Judy Kocher. She tells when 'Yes' can really mean 'No'.
Why is communication so important? Studies indicate we spend about 75% of our time at work communicating. Our success depends a great deal on how well we understand each other. Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Communication is a dynamic process. The communicator is both a sender and a receiver of messages, sometimes at the same time. In my work as a cross-cultural trainer, I find that the communication between peoples of different cultures poses the most challenges for expatriates. I often hear complaints and expressions of frustrations from westerners along lines such as ‘The Thais never tell me what they think’ or ‘I always have to read between the lines’.
The communication process is much more difficult and challenging when the communicators do not share the same way of thinking, feeling and behaving. They often do not share a common system for making their message known, leading to misunderstandings. As cultural differences increase, misunderstandings also increase. If we want to communicate effectively we must use our knowledge of the other culture to make predictions of their behaviour based on their rules, not on ours.
One of the primary barriers to effective communication is the different style of communication between cultures. Interculturalists have identified numerous differences in communication styles from culture to culture. The most important and most studied distinctions are between direct/high content cultures and indirect/high context communicators.
Cultures that are more heterogeneous and individualist have evolved more direct communication styles. Less is known or assumed about a person and they cannot depend on communicating non-verbally. They must rely more on words being interpreted literally. Getting or giving information is the goal of most communication exchanges. The responsibility for communicating effectively is on the speaker, who must be clear, direct and factual.
Context refers to the amount of innate and largely unconscious understanding a person can be expected to bring to a particular communication setting. In indirect/high context cultures, the onus is on the listener to understand the message being communicated.
Indirect cultures, such as Thai and Japanese, tend to be homogenous and group oriented. They have highly developed notions of how most interactions will unfold, and of how they and the listener will behave in a particular situation. Because they already know and understand each other quite well, they have a more indirect style and rely less on words and more on the context of an exchange.
The setting for the communication, whether a formal meeting or an informal exchange in a private office, who is delivering the message, a boss or a subordinate, an elder or a junior, are all part of the context and may communicate much more than the actual words or facts. The overriding goal of the communication is to maintain harmony. Therefore, indirect communicators such as Thais go to great lengths to communicate negative responses indirectly through evasions, non-verbal cues or body language.
If someone has to say ‘no’ then there will be a loss of face and disharmony will be created. The direct communicator needs to understand that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for indirect communicators to openly express disagreement or opposition to an idea, a plan or even a suggestion, especially if it comes from a boss! Direct communicators, such as North Americans, Northern Europeans and Australians, must tune up their antennae when communicating with indirect cultures.
If the message they are getting is not clear, it most likely indicates that something negative is being communicated. Yes/No questions should be avoided, as the answer may be yes but given only in order to avoid embarrassment. The Thai and Japanese, or other indirect cultures, are not being dishonest; they are expecting the listener to ‘get the message’ by understanding the context in which the message is given.
When working in an indirect culture, direct communicators also need to be sensitive to speaking too bluntly as they may seem rude and boorish. They may need to tone down their style or risk that the indirect listener will ‘tune them out.’ Thais do not respond well to loudness or displays of anger or frustration. They may shut down to avoid loss of face in such a situation. When confronted with these challenges, it’s best to take a break and stand back for a minute. Try to recognize that you are operating on different wavelengths and work to get back on track without anyone’s loss of face.
11/08/2011 - 10:20