If you answered C to all three questions, you probably have a reasonable grasp of cross-cultural orientations. The growing population of international students and employees in the U. S. , the disproportionate trade deficits among countries, the popularity of international acquisitions and joint ventures, and increasing international interactions among companies today force leaders in U. S. organizations to learn to interact and communicate more efficiently with a greater variety of cultures.
The problems and results of mismanagement and miscommunication are evident daily. The problems are not likely to dissipate merely with increased interactions among other cultures, and the results of perfunctory relations and communications are not likely to improve. The responsibility for acknowledging this increasing problem and the obligation for eliminating its sources rest firmly with the organization’s leaders.
Unfortunately, many organizations are not aware of current trends or the changes occurring around them in the international business environment. An understanding of some of the aspects of intercultural interactions represents an important step toward being able to adapt to and confront these complex situations. This article discusses some of the aspects and ramifications of interacting with other cultures. A primary source of misunderstanding among cultures is the differences in values and priorities.
Some of the most common lie in the way dissimilar cultures perceive, time, thought patterns, personal space, material possessions, family roles and relationships, language, religion, personal achievement, competitiveness and individuality, social behavior, and other interrelated environmental and subjective issues. Another important source of miscommunication and misunderstanding is in the perceptions of the leaders, managers, and communicators about the persons with whom they are dealing.
For example, if people presume their values and habits are superior and more sophisticated than those of other cultures, this attitude will be reflected in the way they communicate. Some of the factors that affect intercultural relationships are outlined below. Time Americans place an exceptionally high priority on time, perceiving it as a commodity that holds value. Conserving time to them is an efficient process, a significant asset. Many cultures, conversely, place more worth on relationships and a decelerated, more relaxed lifestyle.
If an American tries to coerce others to conform to his tempo, members of other cultures may find it offensive and avoid doing business with him. They may think he or she is someone who is “more interested in business than people” or who thinks, “being punctual for an occasion or appointment is a fundamental goal of life. ” Before some business people will conduct business or interact with others, an amicable relationship must first be established.
Thought Patterns Americans declare that their past is behind them; however, some cultures believe that a person’s past is in front of him, since he can view what has happened. Americans assert that their future is in front of them; others believe that the future is behind them, because they cannot see into the future. Additionally, many Americans would like to foresee the future so they could take advantage of impending opportunities or events. Other cultures believe it fortunate that one cannot see the future because that way he or she is not exposed to negative information that would likely cause worry or pain.
In the Going International film series, George Renwick describes the Arab’s speech and thought behavior as moving in loops, whereas the American’s speech and thought behavior is direct or linear. Those unaware of these patterns could confound the process and cause negative consequences by forward, abrupt, or aggressive communication. Other thought and perceptual traditions influence behavior and communication patterns and could lead to unexpected outcomes if leaders do not take the time and effort to understand them. Personal Space
Cultures maintain unwritten rules on the distance one member remains from another in face-to-face interactions, in lines, and in public places. Although the distance is affected by the relationships of the people involved, one member of a culture may be offended if someone from another culture, in which personal distance rules are different, violates the space rule by “invading” his space. The closer conversation distance of Arabs and Africans typically makes Americans uncomfortable; Arabs and Africans may feel rejection by the lengthy personal distance of Americans.
Many Americans dislike it when another touches them on the arm or shoulder, but it is more a personal preference than a cultural rule. In some cultures, however, it is inappropriate to touch another person with the hand (especially the left hand), particularly if the party is of the opposite sex. Managers should learn the personal space and touching rules of the society in which they are working so they do not offend host nationals or make them uncomfortable. Material Possessions U. S. advertisements reinforce “more is better” or “bigger is better” values.
Business publications print annual lists of the largest corporations, the highest-compensated executives, and the wealthiest persons ad nauseam. Consequently, the attention devoted to these accomplishments prompts Americans to equate success with material wealth. Those cultures that place little or no great significance on possessions may feel that it is vulgar, greedy, and disrespectful to flaunt wealth, and cannot relate to the values held by those who do. Managers need to know the value of material possessions not only in facilitating the communication process, but also when trying to motivate those of other cultures.
Family Roles and Relationships In many societies, family roles and relationships are very traditional, personal, and predictable. The husband is the provider, the wife supervises the household, and males in the household are more valued than females. Each member of the family has a designated role and the responsibility for maintaining status quo for those roles. Peer pressures preserve the roles, and work situations and business interactions are less influential than familial responsibilities.
One American businessman became very disconcerted to learn upon his arrival in Egypt that the man with whom he had an appointment was in another city to attend the funeral of his brother. Although the death had occurred a couple of weeks earlier, the Egyptian businessman had neglected to telephone the American and inform him of the expected absence. Rather than show his displeasure at the inconvenience placed upon him, the American capitalized upon the opportunity and pretended the purpose of his trip was to express his personal condolences.
An expression of impatience or anger would have probably severed all future relations; the expression of sympathy was most suitable to the occasion. This philosophy is illustrated by a Latin American parable: “Man does not live to work–man works to live. ” To maintain open communication and good relations, family roles and relations must be honored. Language All cultures use verbal and nonverbal communication systems or languages, and each culture’s vocabulary reflects its primary values and composition.
Eskimos use many words and expressions for snow and its components, Arabs have numerous words for camels, and Americans have multiple words and meanings for computers and accessories. Although words themselves have no meaning (meaning comes from people), managers should observe and respect the role and composition of languages and other subtle cultural cues. In his book, Big Business Blunders, David Ricks details numerous problems that have developed as a result of words or behaviors in one culture or language having opposite or obscene meanings in another. ]
Even with a language, accents, usages, or differences in the way things are said can create disharmony. Terpstra and David indicate that “while an American would say that he put some gas in his truck, drove to his girlfriend’s apartment, took the elevator to her floor, and rang the doorbell, an Englishman would say that he put some petrol in his lorry, drove to his girlfriend’s flat, took the lift to her floor, and then knocked her up. ”  Ricks also noted some of the problems that developed as a result of a difference in the meaning of words between British and American English.
Religion Religion is the dominant force in the daily lives of some peoples, such as Arabs. Arab life revolves around prayer times, holidays, and daily events, and many occurrences are justified in the name of religion. Phrases such as “it was Allah’s will” are used as rationalizations for a major disaster or disruption of business. Successful foreign businesses operating in cultures where religion governs business and social practices are those who respect and deal with their hosts’ customs, such as prayer requirements and dietary restrictions.
Businesses should also be aware that if changes affect religious and cultural patterns, resistance from religious and government leaders could result. One can sense the problems that may occur by examining the Iranian revolution of the early eighties, when many Iranian leaders felt threatened by cultural changes that were developing. Additionally, a disregard or lack of respect for cultural traditions can result in loss of communication or business, or in consequences even more serious. Personal Achievement
Achievement is another value espoused by the traditional American businessperson. The success and prestige of our business leaders are measured by the magnitude of their organization, the amount of their compensation, and their location in the hierarchy. The larger the organization and compensation and the higher the stature, traditionally the greater the adoration. In other cultures, especially where family time is meaningful, the quality of relationships and time spent with family are the symbols of success and prestige.
When Americans (perhaps subconsciously) communicate this acquisitive attitude to a culture that does not share their achievement motivation, communication channels can be damaged or severed. Competitiveness and Individuality Competitiveness and individuality are other values supported by most American businesspersons. Within reason, competitiveness is considered a natural, desired trait. Consequently, individual ambition within an organization is encouraged and rewarded. In some international business cultures, aggressive behaviors that demonstrate individuality and competitiveness discouraged.
Instead, team spirit and consensus are valued traits. Problems, misunderstandings, or miscommunications occur when these opposing values enter into communications and behaviors. For example, in the haste to pursue business, aggressiveness can demonstrate a lack of concern that alienates many international associates. Since many cultures value modesty, team spirit, collectivity, and patience, the competitiveness and individualistic demeanor conveyed in American interpersonal verbal communications, advertisements, physical gestures, status symbols, and so forth represents unacceptable behavior.