Jacob has an important meeting in Japan. But unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. Watch the video to find out exactly what happens:
Situations like the one in the video shouldn’t happen, and yet they happen again and again. Why is that? Jacob and Mr. Suzuki have different cultural backgrounds. What is meant in a friendly way by one person may seem rude to the other. The reason for this is the different interpretation of what is said. Cultural misunderstandings can occur not only in verbal communication, gestures can also be misunderstood.
We work more and more in global teams and maintain customer relationships all over the world. It is critical to develop cultural sensitivity not only in business, but also in our personal lives. In this special topic, we explain why it’s so important to communicate interculturally these days. And we explain how you can make connections and maintain relationships worldwide without putting your foot in your cultural mouth.
Of course you know what culture is. Do you? It’s not that simple, because the concept of culture has changed again and again over the course of time. Perhaps you first think of culture in terms of theater, art and literature – in other words, “fine arts” entertainment. But culture in the broader sense is also understood to mean our everyday lives. How we dress, what we eat, how we live, and even how we communicate. All of this falls under the umbrella of our culture. In principle, there are hardly any limits to the imagination of what can be called culture. Because everyday life in different parts of the world can look very different, there are also countless cultures. That brings us to our first tip: One mistake you should not make is to distinguish between “primitive peoples” and “cultural peoples”. With this distinction, you deny indigenous societies living in the South American rainforest, for example, any culture, even though they, just like us, have a multifaceted everyday culture. Even though you may not have anything to do with indigenous societies in your professional or private life, this example makes it clear that cultural sensitivity helps you to change your perspective and break out of old thought patterns.
``Every person is part of an invisible web of meaning - culture.``
This definition of culture comes from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and says that culture surrounds us always and everywhere. We are virtually enmeshed in it and attribute meaning to everything we encounter rather quickly. Some cultures seem foreign to us, some very close. If the habits of another culture seem strange to us, we have no choice but to compare them with our own experiences and interpret them.
Imagine someone blinking at you. Objectively, this is just a simple up and down movement of the eyelid. How do you interpret the blink? As flirting? As a secret message? That’s probably how most of us know it, and if you share the same cultural code with the blinker, that’s an obvious interpretation. But maybe it means something completely different in his culture. Maybe it’s a greeting, maybe it expresses anger. Maybe it was just an involuntary movement of the eyelid and it has no meaning at all.
Before we get to how we can better understand foreign cultures, we need to address why intercultural communication has become increasingly important.
``Some cultures that once seemed foreign to us are now much more familiar.``
This is due, among other things, to globalization, which has a great impact on the economy, trade, financial markets, but also on our social lives. Modern technologies make it possible to communicate with people all over the world. We fly around the globe and network via the Internet. In this way, we are also getting to know more and more habits of people from other cultures, perhaps even adopting them.
Cultural globalization is actually nothing new, and it existed even before the Internet. Through travel and trade relations, influences from other cultures have always been taken and adapted to one’s own environment. There are countless examples of this in art, literature and music. However, the current cultural globalization has three main causes:
Capital and goods are no longer tied to a specific place. They move at high speed across the entire globe. And not only capital and goods, but also we humans fly around the world for professional and private reasons and thus consciously and unconsciously learn more and more about other cultures and their habits. And some of them we may even integrate into our own lives.
Migration movements mean that we are much more often confronted with other ways of life. Why people leave their home country can be for very different reasons. Some have to flee for political reasons, some leave their country for social or economic reasons. These movements around the globe naturally lead to societies becoming more diverse and we therefore automatically interact more with people from different cultures.
Mass media such as the Internet, television and radio have developed at an almost breathtaking speed, and technological progress is accelerating. Among other things, the media has been the basis for the global networking of culture, art and society. Just 100 years ago, a direct conversation with someone on the other side of the world was hardly conceivable. Today, in our private and professional lives, we communicate as a matter of course with colleagues and friends from all kinds of countries. Suddenly, distances no longer seem to matter, and we can collaborate globally in companies without flying halfway around the world.
“Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”
When communicating with people from different parts of the world, it’s a good idea to find out what the cultural peculiarities are and what is considered polite and impolite. This will reduce the risk of unintentionally offending someone. As early as the 1960s, the Dutch cultural scientist and social psychologist Geert Hofstede dealt with the classification of cultural differences. Of course, such models should be treated with caution because they often reproduce stereotypes. Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions, however, has been probably the most cited and referenced framework for decades and is thus a good point of reference for dealing with intercultural communication. Hofstede describes six basic dimensions in which cultures differ from each other.
1. Power distance
This dimension describes how power relations are distributed within the culture. In many Asian countries, for example, there is a rather high power distance. This means that decisions tend to be made “from above” and are not usually challenged. In northern and central European countries, on the other hand, this unequal distribution of power is less tolerated and more say is demanded.
2. Individualism / Collectivism
This is about the extent to which one advocates for their own interests over those of the group. In a collectivist culture, the “we feeling” is very strong and the well-being of the group is paramount. This canbe observed in Asian countries in particular. In an individualistic culture, on the other hand, the focus is more on self-fulfillment.
3. Masculinity / Femininity
This cultural dimension describes the distribution of roles in societies. In a culture with a high level of masculinity, gender roles are clearly distributed and it is virtually prescribed what work women and men do. There is also a focus on values such as material gains, achievement and assertiveness. “Feminine cultures,” such as those in Scandinavian countries, have an equal division between men and women and are more relationship- and cooperation-oriented.
4. Uncertainty avoidance
How do people deal with unknown situations? If they are more analytically inclined and thus try to make the unknown or uncertain easier to grasp and plan for, they tend to belong to a culture with a high level of uncertainty avoidance. Rules also have a higher priority here and value is placed on avoiding mistakes as far as possible. In cultures with a low level of uncertainty avoidance, on the other hand, more risks are taken and errors are accepted.
5. Long-term orientation – short-term orientation
In some cultures, such as China or Japan, it is important to establish long-term relationships with business partners. This is usually associated with a high degree of respect for people of higher rank. Often, certain traditions and rituals play a major role in these long-term relationships. In a more short-term oriented society, success, such as the conclusion of a contract, should be seen as quickly as possible.
6. Pleasure – Restraint
In this cultural dimension, one asks to what extent individual needs are lived out. In a pleasure-oriented culture, for example, there is an open attitude toward sexuality, there are no dress codes and there is generally an optimistic attitude toward the future. A restrained culture, on the other hand, is more restrictive and tends to limit individual needs. Here, law and order comes first.
In which cultural dimension can you classify your business partners or customers? If you know the values and norms of the respective culture, you can already avoid many mistakes and blunders. However, there are even more tips that can help you in intercultural encounters.
Communication takes place verbally or nonverbally. Even if we say nothing, we can express a certain attitude or opinion. Therefore, it is of great importance that you also pay attention to gestures, and can interpret facial expressions and body postures correctly. Here are just a few examples of how different gestures can be interpreted around the world:
Did you know that a nod of the head does not mean “no” in all countries? In India, Pakistan and Bulgaria, for example, it is a gesture of approval. In other countries, such as parts of Greece and Turkey, a slight toss of the head back serves as a negation.
There is a lot of potential for misunderstanding here. In Germany, for example, the thumbs up is considered a gesture for “Super!” or “Great!”. In some countries, however, such as Australia or Nigeria, it is considered a vulgar insult. The “O” formed with the thumb and index finger can also be interpreted differently depending on the country. In this country it symbolizes “Okay”, but in Latin America or Russia this is a highly vulgar gesture. In Japan, on the other hand, the same gesture stands for “money.” The British also understand the “V” formed with the fingers as impolite, if the back of the hand is turned forward in the process.
Proximity and distance
The distance from the other person that we perceive as comfortable depends largely on the culture in which we grew up. German and Scandinavian people like to maintain a certain distance. They will feel uncomfortable if someone intrudes too much into their personal space. In Latin America, on the other hand, this comfort zone is much smaller and there is more physical contact.
You have now learned why intercultural communication is so important and tactics that can help you avoid putting your foot in your mouth. But what actually happens next with Jacob and Mr. Suzuki? Find out in this video:
Improve your intercultural competence
Be open-minded about other cultures and respect other ways of life. If you familiarize yourself with the values and rules of the foreign culture, you will improve your intercultural competence. With this, you not only eliminate many misunderstandings, but it can also be very beneficial for your career. Applicants with a high level of intercultural competence are more in demand than ever.
If you also speak several foreign languages, or have expertise in international relations, you will be in high demand in the job market. Even if English is the most important language in the corporate environment, it can be enormously helpful if you acquire at least a basic knowledge of other languages. Foreign language skills can be a door opener for many situations. For example, greeting your business partner in the local language shows respect and empathy. The following always applies: You do not have to have a perfect command of the language, but the effort alone shows appreciation for the other person and his or her culture.
Theory is good, practice is better. There are many providers of intercultural training. In workshops, you learn to communicate successfully with people from other cultures using well-founded methods. Many of these seminars are even specially tailored to business situations. With the help of role plays and active exercises, the trainings impart intercultural competence. Attendees learn to deal with their own culture, to recognize the differences to other cultures, and to break down prejudices and stereotypes. In this way, they are prepared to feel more confident in intercultural situations and to act more confidently.
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Here again are the most important points you should consider regarding intercultural communication: