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September - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Cross-cultural communications Managing organizations to effective exchanges
S Suresh
Monday, September 3, 2007
As companies globalize, they’re looking to new and different “hot spots” in the world where talent exists to augment their organizations and to operate more efficiently. Today’s global environment often requires that businesses place their functions where the resources are, to best serve their customers and investors. Businesses now may operate their headquarters in Silicon Valley, but also have a call center in Omaha, a manufacturing plant in Nanjing, support technicians in Dublin, a development arm in Bangalore, and so on.

But, with the decrease of centralized operations the need for communications “sensitivity training” has increased. Employees (and customers) bring with them their own cultural perspectives in which they contextualize all communications. To effectively communicate for best results across the globe, companies now have to look at not only ‘what’ they’re communicating, but also ‘how’, to understand the impact the different channels of communication have on employees and what communications styles and expectations employees bring into their business dialogues.

I often see this type of expectations mismatch when dealing with emails. More often than not, I hear from employees that they have gotten negative feedback about their emails from employees in another region. It’s a clear example of the need for cultural training and understanding of the differences in style and context across an organization.

In general, western culture is what I call a “low context” one where aspects like tone and even the seniority level of the person delivering the message are not as important as the message itself.

But in many eastern cultures, such as in India or Japan, messages are indeed context-dependent, and the perception of messages in this “high-context” environment are influenced as much by the “how” and “who” as by the information itself.

A long-winding email from a “high-context” employee might annoy someone belonging to the “low-context” culture, leaving them wondering why it’s taking the sender so long to express the action. On the flip side, a straightforward email from a “low-context” employee to a “high-context” employee may end up with the recipient perceiving an implied insult.

This contextualization extends to verbal communications of every type. When I first went to the Netherlands, I worked with an engineer who was not very fluent in English. He was very short with me, and I took that personally. It wasn’t until later that I realized that he was effectively translating everything into Dutch and back into English during the conversations with me. Clearly, there was no intention to be rude – it was just a mismatch in terms of my expectations and his abilities.

I do not think it possible to create a single culture that fits the global world – in fact, it would rob the world of the whole charm, in my opinion, nor is it possible or advisable to do so. I do think that companies that seek to run their operations globally must proactively work to promote understanding of different communication styles and perceptions attached to those communications across the employee base. Sometimes, it’s as simple as knowing what to ask and sometimes what not to ask (“Are you married?”, “Do you agree with the policies of your President?”). But more often than not, it’s keeping an open mind, and encouraging those who report to you to do the same.

He can be reached at ssuresh@informatica

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