How To Understand Cross-Cultural Communication ?


This blog has been inspired by an article published  by Rana Sinha How to understand cross-cultural analysis?. I have summarized Rana’s key ideas and added my own sources of information

Origins and Evolution of Cross-cultural Communication.

 Typically anthropologists and social scientists tend to study people and human behavior among exotic tribes and cultures living in far off places rather than do field work among white-collared literate adults in modern cities. Advances in communication and technology and socio-political changes started transforming the modern workplace yet there were no guidelines based on research to help people interact with other people from other cultures. To address this gap arose the discipline of cross-cultural analysis or cross-cultural communication. The main theories of cross-cultural communication draw from the fields of anthropology, sociology, communication and psychology and are based on value differences among cultures. Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Shalom Schwartz and Clifford Geertz are some of the major contributors in this field.

[The popular ‘Iceberg model’ of culture developed by Selfridge and Sokolik, 1975 and W.L. French and C.H. Bell in 1979, identifies a visible area consisting of behaviour or clothing or symbols and artifacts of some form and a level of values or an invisible level.]

What is culture ?

 A simpler definition is ‘the unwritten rules of the social game’.

Generally culture can be seen as consisting of three elements:

  • Values – Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered important.
  • Norms – Norms consists of expectations of how people should behave in different situations.
  • Artefacts – Things or material culture – reflects the culture’s values and norms but are tangible and manufactured by man.

Most of people working with cross-cultural communication and intercultural training and coaching  have heard about the Five  Hofstede’s Intercultural Dimensions (http://www.geert-hofstede.com/).

Geert Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another”. The “category” can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders.

What Are The Five Hofstede’s Intercultural Dimensions ?

  1. Power Distance : Measures inequality
  2. Individualism: is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance : indicates to what extent people  feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.
  4. Masculinity/Feminity: Masculinity versus femininity, refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders
  5. Long-Term Orientation: Long term oriented societies foster pragmatic virtues oriented towards future rewards, in particular saving, persistence, and adapting to changing circumstances. Short-term oriented societies foster virtues related to the past and present such as national pride, respect for tradition, preservation of “face”,  and fulfilling social obligations.

What about the 5 Cultural Dimensions For the USA? 

If we explore the US culture through the lens of the 5-D Model, we can get a good overview of the deep drivers of American culture relative to other world cultures.

Power distance: The United States score low on this dimension (40)  this translates the focus on equal rights in all aspects of American society and government. Within American organizations superiors are always accessible and managers rely on individual employees and teams for their expertise.  Both managers and employees expect to be consulted and information is shared frequently.  At the same time, communication is informal, direct and participative.

Individualism: The United States, with a score of 91 on this dimension, is a highly individualistic culture.Individual freedom  is the most basic value that all Americans share. Individuals have control over their own destiny and they want to have free choices on every topics. Personal success is priority number one. Americans are expected to take initiative regarding education, employment, personal development or well-being. As a consequence, Americans are assertive and straightforward while interacting with others and sometimes labelled as arrogant by other cultures who value group interests over individual success. In the business world, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative.  Also, within the exchange-based world of work, hiring and promotion decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

Masculinity/Feminity: The United States score 62 on this dimension and is considered a “masculine” society driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the “winner” or “best-in-the-field.” This value system starts in school and continues throughout one’s life – both in work and leisure pursuits.
There are strong shared values that people should “strive to be the best they can be” and that “the winner takes all”. As a result, Americans will tend to display and talk freely about their “successes” and achievements in life, here again, another basis for hiring and promotion decisions in the workplace. Typically, Americans “live to work” so that they can earn monetary rewards and obtain higher status based on how good one can be.  Conflicts are resolved at the individual level and the goal is to win.

Uncertainty avoidance: The dimension Uncertainty Avoidance has to do with the way that a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? The US scores 46 on this dimension and therefore, American society is what one would describe as “uncertainty accepting.” Consequently, there is a larger degree of acceptance for new ideas, innovative products and a willingness to try something new or different, whether it pertains to technology, business practices, or foodstuffs.  Americans tend to be more tolerant of ideas or opinions from anyone and allow the freedom of expression.  At the same time, Americans do not require a lot of rules and are less emotionally expressive than higher-scoring cultures.

Long-term orientation: The United States scores 29 on this dimension and is a short-term oriented culture.  American businesses measure their performance on a short-term basis, with profit and loss statements being issued on a quarterly basis.  This also drives individuals to strive for quick results within the work place.  There is also a need to have the “absolute truth” in all matters.

How France Compares with the US ?

Power distance: In France, hierarchy is needed the superiors may have privileges and are often inaccessible. The power is highly centralized in France. In management, the attitude towards managers is more formal, the information flow is hierarchical. The way information is controlled is even associated with power, therefore unequally distributed.  

Individualism: France scores high on the individualistic index but lower than the U.S.  This means that the French favor individual and private opinions, taking care of themselves and immediate family rather than belonging to a group. In the work environment, the relationship with work is contract based, the focus is on the task and autonomy is favored. The communication is direct  but much less than in the U.S.

Masculinity/Feminity With 43, France is a relatively Feminine country and so very different from the U.S.With its famous welfare system (securité sociale), their 35 working hours/week and 5 weeks holidays per year, France cares for its quality of life and focuses more on work in order to live than the reverse. Competition amongst work colleagues is usually not favored. Material signs of success, especially flashy ones, should not be too visible.

Uncertainty Avoidance: France has one the highest scores on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index. Certainty is reached through academic work and concepts. Teachings and trainings are more inductive. In management structure, rules and security are welcome and if lacking, it creates stress. Therefore planning is favored, some level of expertise welcome, when change policies on the other hand are considered stressful.

Long-term orientation: At 39 France is a short-term oriented society. This means a great respect for tradition as well as a need for norms and absolute truth as guidelines. In terms of business this short-term orientation focuses on quick results. Consumption is driven by immediate gratification, sensitivity to social trends and rituals.

Managing and organizational culture

Managing international business means handling both national and organization culture differences at the same time. Common organization cultures across borders are what holds multinationals together.The cultural differences between nations are especially found on the deepest level; i.e. on the level of values. In comparison, cultural differences among organisations are especially identified on the level of practices. Practices are more tangible than values. Organisational Culture can be defined as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one organisation from others”

Read more about building third culture teams: http://zestnzen.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/how-to-lead-highly-effective-third-culture-teams/

Aims of cross-cultural analysis

Cross-cultural communication or inter cultural communication looks at how people from different cultural backgrounds try to communicate. It also tries to produce some guidelines, which help people from different cultures to better communicate with each other. Culture has an interpretative function for the members of a group, which share that particular culture. Although all members of a group or society might share their culture, expressions of culture-resultant behavior are modified by the individuals’ personality, upbringing and life-experience to a considerable degree. Cross-cultural analysis aims at harnessing this utilitarian function of culture as a tool for increasing human adaptation and improving communication.

Cross-cultural management is seen as a discipline of international management focusing on cultural encounters, which aims to discover tools to handle cultural differences seen as sources of conflict or miss-communication.

Beside Geert’s model, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997) model expands the core level of the very basic two-layered model, rather than the outer level. In their view, culture is made up of basic assumptions at the core level. These ‘basic assumptions’ are somewhat similar to ‘values’ in the Hofstede model. Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner use seven dimensions for their model of culture:

    • Universalism vs Particularism (what is more important – rules or relationships?)
    • Individualism vs Communitarianism (do we function in a group or as an individual?)
    • Neutral vs Emotional (do we display our emotions or keep them in check?)
    • Specific vs Diffuse (how far do we get involved?)
    • Achievement vs Ascription (do we have to prove ourselves to gain status or is it given to us just because we are a part of a structure?)
    • Attitude to Time
      • Past- / present- / future-orientatedness
      • Sequential time vs Synchronic time(do we do things one at a time or several things at once?)
    • Internal vs External Orientation (do we aim to control our environment or cooperate with it?)

Criticism of current models

One of the weaknesses of cross-cultural analysis has been the inability to transcend the tendency to equalize culture with the concept of the nation state. A nation state is a political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language or languages. In real life, cultures do not have strict physical boundaries and borders like nation states. Its expression and even core beliefs can assume many permutations and combinations as we move across distances.

There is some criticism in the field that this approach is out of phase with global business today, with transnational companies facing the challenges of the management of global knowledge networks and multicultural project teams, interacting and collaborating across boundaries using new communication technologies.

Some writers like Nigel Holden (2001) suggest an alternative approach, which acknowledges the growing complexity of inter- and intra-organizational connections and identities, and offers theoretical concepts to think about org

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10 thoughts on “How To Understand Cross-Cultural Communication ?

  1. Sandra Humphrey (@Sandra305) February 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm Reply

    Good article and I really like the graphic. I had never heard of assessment via the Five Cultural Dimensions before and I found those criteria very intriguing. Our granddaughter just spent six weeks in France as part of her junior year internship in International Relations and I’m going to forward your post to her.

  2. natalie Tollenaere February 8, 2012 at 11:15 am Reply

    Hi Anne, very interesting article. A summury of cross cultural approach. And yes culture doesn’t stop with Nation. That where it starts… and never end!
    Natalie Tollenaere http://www.transitionstoafrica.com

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach February 8, 2012 at 11:57 am Reply

      Thanks Natalie for your comment. Cross-cultural communication is indeed a huge subject and really a hot topic nowadays as people experience the dynamic of a global economy.

  3. […] How To Understand Cross-Cultural Communication ? (zestnzen.wordpress.com) […]

  4. Loving Language March 4, 2013 at 9:16 pm Reply

    This article is helpful in highlighting categories to look at when entering into relationships with firms from other countries. These are the most important categories in the literature in the 70s, it seems. Have you looked at more recent research to see where they stand on the these 5 categories? Do people look at more, fewer, or different categories now?

    Also, I love the “internal vs external” dynamic; I’ve seen it in practice. But I would say that “environment” may not describe it completely, because it is expressed often in theological terms. In listening to US military personnel in Iraq, they are frustrated with the “in sha allah” (“If God wills”) attitude, as the Americans call it. The opposite is “manifest destiny,” or, whatever we do constitutes God’s will.

  5. Dianne Hofner Saphiere March 20, 2013 at 11:40 pm Reply

    Thank you for promoting this topic, Anne. I believe Bob Kohls was using the iceberg before the above-referenced citations, but, publishing remains the dominant record in our world. Dimensions are terrific analytics for comparing cultures and understanding differences, but they are knowledge-based rather than process-based and thus not helpful in and of themselves to collaboration. Re: the layers of culture, the fact that we are all multicultural individuals, you might enjoy this if you haven’t seen it:

    http://blog.culturaldetective.com/2012/03/19/layering-lenses/

    In my 35+ years experience in international business, national culture frequently has less of an effect than organizational culture and professional training. Keep up the good work!

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach March 21, 2013 at 4:59 pm Reply

      Hi Dianne, Agree with you all the theories about cultures are just good conversation starters to explain where attitudes and differences come from. Business etiquette is maybe changing but still traditions persist: In china, people spit even in restaurants, in Japan,most men make noise when they eat their noodle soup, in Russia never shake hands with gloves, in France put your two hands on the table while having a meal etc. You can never be wrong when you apply those cultural rules. For the rest, I think it is important to educate people on how to develop their own cultural awareness by asking authentic questions, being curious, avoiding stereotypes and being aware of their own bias. I think Intercultural skills are part of emotional intelligence. Here one article you might enjoy too http://zestnzen.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/four-reasons-you-should-care-about-emotional-intelligence/

  6. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach September 10, 2013 at 6:50 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Anne Egros, Intercultural Executive Coach and commented:

    The popular ‘Iceberg model’ of culture developed by Selfridge and Sokolik, 1975 identifies a visible area consisting of behavior or clothing or symbols and artifacts of some form and a level of values or an invisible level. The Interculturalist Christian Höferle challenges this metaphor, for being too simplistic and offers some interesting suggestions in his blog : http://southeastschnitzel.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/wanted-a-21st-century-metaphor-to-explain-culture/

    I came up with the idea of “mayonnaise” to represent culture. What you first see in a good mayonnaise is an homogeneous yellowish cream. But in fact if you look at it under a microscope, it is made of small droplets of water with different sizes and shapes dispersed in an homogeneous oil phase. Everybody knows that water and oil don’t mix together and that you need other ingredients such as emulsifiers to have a stable mixture looking homogeneous from the outside. I like to think about the droplets of water (coming from the egg yolks) with different shapes and sizes as individuals who stay together because of a set of rules, thinking process, behaviors or other cultural norms (those can be compared with the emulsifier found in egg yolk, the lecithin, a component soluble both in water and oil ). The oil can represent the most obvious and visible component of the culture. So in short culture is not only define by what you see but you need deep immersion to understand each individuals who are unique yet hold together by explicit and not so explicit rules or norms.
    How about you ? Do you have a better metaphor to explain culture ?

  7. Dr. Zareen karani September 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm Reply

    Given different cultural contexts, this brings new communication challenges to the workplace. Even when employees located in different locations or offices speak the same language (for instance, correspondences between English-speakers in the U.S. and English-speakers in the UK), there are some cultural differences that should be considered in an effort to optimize communications between the two parties. Without getting into cultures and sub-cultures, it is perhaps most important for people to realize that a basic understanding of cultural diversity is the key to effective cross-cultural communications. Without necessarily studying individual cultures and languages in detail, we must all learn how to better communicate with individuals and groups whose first language, or language of choice, does not match our own.

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