The second decade of the 21st century is here and it is safe to say that the concept of globalization is a familiar one. Hiring outsourcing companies is standard practice. So much so that it seems like there is no special need for us to put a lot of thought into communication across cultures. Many of us in IT speak English, watch Netflix and travel. We have the same set of emoji to choose from, we use Uber, and recycle. It must be that we also communicate similarly, right?
Well, to an extent, yes. If we communicate clearly, politely and logically we ensure positive collaboration with any clients or colleagues whether they’re from Finland, the U.S., or Poland. However, if we venture a little bit further from our cultural comfort zone things get a little bit trickier and a little bit more complicated to navigate. Here are four tips on how I approach intercultural communication at Espeo.
This short guide can help you forge lasting relationships with your teammates, clients and other collaborators from around the world.
Do your research
No doubt it is the most fundamental (and self-explanatory) rule we should follow: always do your research first! There are multiple tools and frameworks that we can use in order to help us understand attitudes and behaviors influenced by different cultures.
The most basic tool is a distinction between high and low context cultures introduced by Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. The scale is a measure of how explicit the messages exchanged in a culture are, and how important the context in that communication is.
According to this framework, low-context cultures are those that communicate in direct, explicit, and precise ways. This is in contrast to high-context cultures, which communicate in ways that are implicit and rely heavily on nonverbal language and subtext.
Following this distinction, you would get straight to the point when doing business with a German but start with small-talk when talking to a person from India. Successful outsourcing companies take these lessons to heart and incorporate this into our day-to-day work.
Another useful tool is called Hofstede’s cultural dimensions scheme developed between 1967 and 1973 by Geert Hofstede. It is a framework for cross-cultural communication that describes the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behavior, using a structure derived from factor analysis.
It measures six factors such as power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and indulgence cross-culturally.
For example, a high score on power distance makes the UAE a society that forms a strict hierarchy. The U.S. and Finland, on the other hand, are societies that tend to minimize hierarchies. Having that information should change the way you approach a client or colleague from the UAE.
Your manner of speaking and writing should be more formal and distant. With an American, use more relaxed, friendly speech and writing.
That said, it is equally important to be on the lookout for generalizations and stereotypes. You must always make an effort to distinguish between stereotypes which are usually pejorative and definitive (all Finns must be reserved, all Poles are sullen) and prototypes which are more of a central tendency of cultural behavior, fluid and changeable.
Cultural awareness should help you anticipate certain behaviors but it shouldn’t determine your judgment of an individual that is representative of a culture.
Let’s say you are to arrange a kick-off meeting with Finnish clients. It would be a mistake to go into the meeting expecting them to be reserved. However, it’s not a mistake to be ready for long pauses between thoughts and one-word answers.
Culturally, the Finnish clients may be following a prototype. You might better understand their behavior and react appropriately.
Keep an open mind about outsourcing companies
That, in turn, draws our attention to the fact that we should never assign value to what we learn about other cultures. Empathy goes a long way in Espeo as it is an intrinsic value of intercultural relations. Let’s examine two different scenarios.
In the first, there is a problem between you and your East Asian teammate and the teammate voiced the issue to your manager before even trying to discuss it with you. Now, judging such behavior through the lens of Western culture, you could describe it as hostile which would create additional tension and reinforce the conflict. The future of your cooperation could be compromised.
However, approaching the issue empathically you would discover that East Asians tend to leave conflict resolution to their bosses. In contrast to the Western communication style, it is not up to the employees to resolve conflicts directly, and it is totally acceptable to dump the problem on your boss and continue with business as usual. Hence, it is the culture that predetermined your teammate’s behavior, not their character.
The second scenario is where a client from the UAE is answering your direct question with a long metaphorical story that you are supposed to somehow decipher. Frustrated and from a low-context culture you could judge such an elaborate answer as evasive or untrustworthy.
But, if you explore Arab culture even on the most basic level you would learn that this elaborate way of answering a simple question stems from the fact that metaphor embodies cultural norms, beliefs and practical life experience in these cultures and using it in everyday speech as well as business does not mean the speaker is trying to be deceitful or unreliable. It simply means that there is a basic difference in way of communicating and it has nothing to do with the other person’s motivation.
Try not to see the behavior and attitude of others through the lens of your own culture. Try to understand it instead!
The last piece of advice would be to adapt. This one requires the most practice and experience but it is definitely worth the effort. Try to balance between your own personality and background, and your recipient’s personality and culture.
It will make communication more authentic and therefore more effective.
There really is no point in going to extreme lengths in order to accommodate all of your client’s or co worker’s cultural habits. It will make the relationship so laborious that eventually you might resent it and avoid any non-essential communication. And what good is that to anyone?
Instead, choose open conversation about your differences and maybe you will be able to find some common ground. This is an essential part of working with IT outsourcing companies.
To sum up, always remember to examine the cultural background of your client or teammate. Try to focus on cultural prototypes rather than stereotypes, do not assign value to what you learn about other cultures. And of course, find a balance between adhering to the communication style of others and your own comfort and authenticity. So there you go! A short guide on how to effectively approach communication in cross-cultural outsourcing companies.
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