Cross Cultural Communication, Lesson 1

7 August 2009

Me:  “Is it hot or cold outside?”

Answer:  “Yes”


I can’t tell you how many times, while living in China, I asked a question, and the person replied with an answer that demonstrated they completely missed the meaning of my question. Of course, that’s to be expected.  Even when two people come from the same culture and speak the same language, communication can be a challenge.  When two people speak different languages, you know there will be additional challenges.  The real problems are those that surface when you don’t even know they exist!   

When you know a person doesn’t understand, it may be a challenge, but at least you know where you stand.  With that knowledge, you can figure out how to deal with the communication issue.  The real problem comes when you think something has been communicated, but you find out too late that the person did not understand. For instance, perhaps you find out the engineer did not understand to make x change in a certain widget, but only after 200,000 of those widgets have been molded.  A simple failure of communication can amount to a costly mistake. 

The most frustrating situation is when the other person thinks they understand, and they lead you to believe they understand, and you rely on that understanding, but at some point (usually at the point when you realize you are headed for total disaster), you realize they had no idea what you were talking about!  The short lesson here is not only to communicate clearly, but also not to leave anything to chance. 

A friend told me a story that illustrates this.  His boss from Europe was coming to see the China operation.  As part of the activities, they planned to host a banquet for the boss.  The boss did not eat pork.  So, the employee gave very careful instructions to the caterer that they were not to serve any pork or shellfish.  On the night of the banquet, they arrived to a fabulous scene.  There were ice sculptures, tiny lights, greenery.  And each table had a suckling pig, complete with red Christmas lights for the eyes. 

free image Food-Chinese-whole-roast-suckling-pig-just-like-a-big-crispy-duck This image is compliments of webcreationz


Ah, COMMUNICATION!  I have a few suggestions that may help:


1. Make it safe for a person to tell you they don’t understand

To an American, this may sound really dumb, but don’t forget the cultural context.  Americans are trained and ingrained by our culture and by our education to have opinions and express them, to communicate, to clarify, and to disagree.  An American managers expects her employees to question, clarify, and keep asking until they understand.  American managers, therefore, sometimes fail to realize that this is not the norm in some other cultures. 

An employee from an Asian culture may expect to take orders without question.  He may come from an educational system where students were expected to memorize and reiterate, where questions were discouraged.  He may feel that to question a supervisor, even to clarify an instruction, implies disrespect.  I suggest that a manager confronted with language barriers to communication needs to go out of her way not only to communicate to employees that their questions are welcome, but also to display the utmost patience and tolerance when employees ask questions.  Use open and welcoming body language.  Sighs, displays of impatience, or anger in response to questions will shut down communication from an employee who is shy about asking legitimate questions to clarify instructions. 

As a corollary, employees who are eager to please may also stop their questions too quickly.  They want to believe they understand, so they may leave the interaction before they actually have enough information.  Before you allow an employee to leave, make them explain back to you their understanding of what you said.  This allows an opportunity to train them more in what you are expecting. 

2. Make no assumptions about what the person knows

In the USA, children learn certain, standard things.  For instance, they are taught not only multiplication tables, but probably also the “ABC song” and how to brush their teeth.  Thus, when you are speaking to an adult American, you can probably assume that he knows what a toothbrush is or that he knows how to put things in alphabetical order.  Can you assume this about a person from X nationality?  Since you don’t have a common bed of cultural understanding, no you cannot!  How do you know what you can and cannot assume? 

It may seem time consuming in the beginning, but one foundation of good cross cultural communication is to make no assumptions.  You ought to specify what you mean by every aspect of the communication from the most trivial to the most profound.  Even if it is redundant, it will lay a firmer foundation for all future communication.

An example from my own life is that in college, one of my math professors began the semester with the proofs that “a = a”, and then “if a = b then b = a, and then “if a = b, and b = c, then a = c”.  And so on.  Laying down of these proofs may have taken only the first fifteen minutes of class, but review of these simple postulates provided a firm foundation for all else that happened that semester. 

A personal example of disaster from making assumptions was that I accompanied a friend one time to pick up an evening gown she was having tailored for a gala.  A master tailor in an off-site location had sewn her gown from expensive silk and then delivered it back to the storefront shop for the customer to pick up.  All that remained to be done was for the girl running the shop to measure and hem the gown.  My friend was impatient, and new to China.  She spoke no Chinese, and the girl in the shop spoke virtually no English.  The girl asked for clarification of how long my friend wanted the gown.  My friend held the hem a few different places.  Here, or here.  The girl seemed confused and asked some more questions.  We were, indeed, both tired.  My friend grew impatient.  “Just get it right!’ she exclaimed.  Well, what do you mean by that?  She made an assumption that the girl knew what to do and how to do it.  But when we returned to pick up the finished product, the dress was several inches too short, and it could not be repaired because the hem had been cut off.  In other words, simple clarification of every instruction, leaving nothing to chance, is very important. 

3. Don’t skimp on the translator

The communication really is only so good as the language skill of both parties.  A translator is limited by his or her previous life experience.  If the translator has never seen a phreonopoly and has no idea what that is, he is going to have difficulty translating that term into his native language.  You may choose to hire a translator who already knows what a phreonopoly is, or you may choose to train your translator.  Either way, you must have a translator who is educated about the topic you are discussing. 

The translator must also be dedicated to providing honest facts in a culturally sensitive way.  In other words, she must bring a degree of diplomacy in how she phrases things, but a commitment to faithful rendering of your message.  Given the significance of the role of translator, the person needs to be someone you can trust to act and speak in your best interest, to tell you not only what is said but also the sometimes hidden meanings in the communications.  The translator thus has a pretty high level function which many people underestimate.  Let’s put it bluntly: this person needs to be someone who can keep things in confidence and who will be loyal to the company and to the manager in the information they convey and the manner in which they communicate it. 

4. Use every tool in your toolbox by supplementing with nonverbal communication

Words are just one tool.  Make use as well of diagrams, pictures, pantomimes, dictionaries, and books.  There are many people who get along just fine in other cultures, never learn to speak the language, merely by being resilient and by using nonverbal communication for many needs.  For example, I was telling an expat friend one time about my frustration about not being able to pronounce the Chinese word for “restroom” properly, so that no one could understand what I meant.  She replied, “I always find that jumping up and down works really well.”  She did a little demonstration, and I saw that it was a very effective way to communicate the idea.  Be creative!


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