Academic discussions of cross-cultural communication in business are fairly unusual. This is because they comprise one of those rare cases in the social science literature where experts agree on a handful of basic facts. (If you’ve spent time in academia, you’ll know all about the elusiveness of scholarly consensus.)
The basic facts are as follows: (a) Cross-cultural communication in business is becoming increasingly common; (b) When done properly, cross-cultural communication in business yields substantial strategic benefits for a company; and finally, (c) Communicating clearly across cultures, especially in a business setting, can be extremely difficult.
Holding these three basic facts in mind, we run into an important question. Namely, how can we improve cross-cultural communication in business? That is to say, because the rate of cross-cultural communication in business is increasing, because it is beneficial, and because it is difficult, what evidence-based strategies can we apply to make sure it takes place successfully?
On the way to answering this question, this document does the following things:
Please note that a full list of references (in Harvard style) is given at the end of this document.
The term cross-cultural communication is defined consistently and straightforwardly in the literature. Namely, cross-cultural communication refers to any act of information exchange involving individuals who have different cultural backgrounds (Padhi, 2016).
For example, suppose that Mr. Crane is an American manager at a proofreading and editing company. Mr. Crane decides to hire two new employees. Eventually, he selects two people who were born and educated in Germany for the slots. Whenever Mr. Crane and his new German employees exchange information, they engage in cross-cultural communication.
It’s worth emphasising that cross-cultural communication encompasses both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication (Teodorescu, 2013). If you’re interested in learning more about non-verbal communication, Tiechuan’s (2016) recent study from the Asian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a great summary.
Communicating clearly across cultures is becoming increasingly common in business due to the rising level of cultural diversity within workplaces (Okoro, 2012; Bove and Elia, 2017; Thomas and Peterson, 2017). In turn, cultural diversity can be attributed to growing levels of globalisation, bilateral immigration, and technological advancement (McLuhan, 1996; Ashcroft and Bevir, 2016).
With the above in mind, almost all businesspeople, irrespective of their position, are likely to have to communicate cross-culturally at some point in their lives (Thomas and Peterson, 2017). In some cases, cross-cultural communication is necessary for business internationalisation, while in other cases, it plays a fundamental role in international mergers and acquisitions, as well as other business activities (Seidschlag and Zhang, 2015).
Altogether, then, the rise of cross-cultural communication in business is a direct consequence of the rise of cultural diversity across all walks of life. A notable concept here is that of McLuhan’s (1996) “global village”, which the scholar coined to reflect the increasingly interconnected, international, and globalised nature of everything that takes place in today’s world, including business.
At the country-wide level, multiculturalism, cross-cultural engagement, and cross-cultural communication are associated with incalculable benefits. These include improvements to macroeconomic conditions, for example, GDP growth rates and trade growth (Washington, Okoro, and Thomas, 2012; Thomas and Peterson, 2017).
However, at the level of the individual business, it is well-documented that effective cross-cultural communication offers a significant competitive advantage (Ghatge and Dasgupta, 2017). As a case in point, it can improve profitability, talent retention, team optimisation, dynamism, productivity, employee satisfaction, and many other important variables (Pudelko, Reiche, and Carr, 2011).
The existence of high-context and low-context cultures is a source of many difficulties in cross-cultural communication in a business setting. The concept of high- and low-context cultures stems from Hall’s (1976) context theory, which suggests that an individual’s cultural background affects their ability to comprehend and appreciate complex messages.
The theory maintains that people from a low-context culture (e.g., certain areas in Europe) tend to find it more difficult to comprehend and appreciate complex messages than their counterparts from a high-context culture (e.g., areas in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa). To learn more about Hall’s (1976) context theory, you can have a look at the influential papers written by Hall and Hall (1990) and Kittler, Rygl, and Mackinnon (2011).
Another difficulty arises because, in many cases, businesspeople are not actually aware of the cultural differences that exist between themselves and their counterparts (Teodorescu, 2013). This lack of familiarity can easily lead to communication breakdown (Hale, 2013). For example, imagine that a business negotiation is taking place between Finnish and American businesspeople. Each party, if they are unfamiliar with the other’s culture, is likely to misinterpret the culturally-informed behaviour of the other (e.g., American “talkativeness” and Finnish “disinterestedness”) (Carbaugh, 2005; Hale, 2005).
As a final difficulty, let’s return to the example of a business negotiation. According to Fang (2006) and Abbasi, Gul, and Senin (2017), the negotiation style an individual or team adopts is strongly informed their nationality. As a case in point, competing and accommodating negotiation styles are fairly common among Chinese and Pakistani managers, respectively (Abbasi, Gul, and Senin, 2017). Therefore, with respect to a cross-cultural business negotiation, communication breakdown may occur if each party fails to recognise and engage with their counterpart’s culturally-informed negotiation style.
Failures in cross-cultural communication can give rise to serious consequences in business. These include negative impacts on the uniformity of corporate culture, its values, and a firm’s capacity to stay profitable over time (Ghatge and Dasgupta, 2017).
Therefore, identifying strategies for improving cross-cultural communication is essential. While many effective strategies exist, this document focuses on Lawrence’s (2004) framework for cross-cultural engagement (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Framework for Cross-Cultural Engagement (adapted from Lawrence, 2004)
One of the most powerful features of Lawrence’s (2004) framework for cross-cultural engagement is its simplicity. The square boxes, connected with arrows, indicate the broad process that businesspeople (or, for that matter, anybody engaging in cross-cultural communication) should follow to achieve effective cross-cultural communication.
The process is extremely straightforward: (1) Identifying individual cultural beliefs; (2) Becoming familiar with cultural differences and beliefs; (3) Understanding and engaging with cultural differences and beliefs; and finally, (4) Successfully communicating across cultures.
In addition, the ovals represent all the relevant cultural differences that should be considered by parties when attempting to communicate across cultures. Many of these we’ve discussed throughout this document, including verbal and non-verbal communication, work practices, and cultural heritage. However, for those we haven’t touched on here, consider surveying the literature for an introduction.
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