Communicating Across Cultures

In these times when global corporations operate in many countries across the world, it is important for the employees in these organizations to know the nuances of intercultural communication. It is often the case that many Asian employees (especially the younger lot) say, “they passed out in a certain year from college”. This has different connotations in the West as it refers to the act of losing consciousness. The correct phrase would be that “we graduated”. To take another example, it is common for many Westerners to start talking about the weather as an icebreaker for the conversation. However, this is interpreted differently in Asian countries where many employees do not seem to understand why the weather is a topic for conversation. Finally, many Asian employees (especially Indians) usually use the term “freaked out” to mean that they have had a good time. However, this is interpreted differently in the US where it has entirely different connotations.

The point here is that intercultural communication depends on a variety of factors that include the specifics of language, style, and substance.

Further, one has to be sensitive to the fact that what is acceptable in one culture might be prohibited in another culture. Hence, it is common for Asian employees to enquire about the families of their coworkers, whereas, in the West, it is not common for the employees to talk openly about them.

Most important aspect in cultural communication is the gender aspect where the way in which employees address the issues of women in the workplace makes a lot of difference to how they are interpreted. In the West, employees are usually politically correct in their communication, which means that they do not overly make racist and gender based statements. This does not mean that such issues do not exist there. On the contrary, there are enough cases of sexual harassment at the workplace in the west. Rather, the point is that in the West, employees are usually guarded when talking about their female coworkers. However, many Asian employees are openly racist and gender biased in their comments.

The other aspect of cross-cultural communication is the issue of how cultural differences are handled. For instance, while it is common for Asians to know many details about the US and the Europe, many westerners have a rather sketchy knowledge of countries other than in the West. This ignorance can sometimes be annoying to the Indians as was evident in the recent issue involving the popular Talk Show Host, Oprah Winfrey. Her statement that “Indians still eat with their hands” kicked up a row with many Indians taking umbrage at this remark. Hence, one must be cognizant of cultural differences and not say or do anything that would be interpreted in a different manner. Finally, cross-cultural communication is all about sensitivity and having empathy with the person from the other culture. Hence, it goes beyond differences and depends largely on the individual who is communicating.

In conclusion, there is a need for training for employees who are being sent onsite or who have to deal with employees from other cultures. This would make the job of communicating across cultures easier and would reduce the chances for faux pas in the communication process.


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