Communication has become the greatest necessity of modern life. The information and communication technologies have shrunk the world further and further, and it’s now more like a village where every body knows each other, and interact with each other all the time. This has also created a peculiar situation wherein people have to interact with others with different cultural backgrounds.
The advent of globalisation was marked by the geographical dislocation, as many businessmen began to move cross-culturally for greater fortunes, and thus, they improved intercultural communication skills. This also involved the second language acquisition. Intercultural communication is so complex that it includes not only linguistic elements such as the grammar, syntax, or the pronunciation; but also the interactional competence such as elements like turn taking, negotiating, opening or closing a conversation. It also considers the socio-cultural contexts of speakers.
Intercultural business communication often takes place in the context of economic activities, and naturally, it includes topic related to economics; and it is essential that businessmen who come from diverse cultures need to become sensitive to the newly acquainted cultural values. It is also necessary that these cultures should be imbibed to improve the communication skills that help them to make successful negotiations with other business parties. It should be noted that miscommunication may arise even from very small linguistic misinterpretations to complex situations in which business agreements may be differently understood; its process also vary from culture to culture (Locker and Kaczmarek, 2007).
People often want easy answers about diversity and culture when only guidelines are possible. Human beings are individuals as much as they are part of a group. In many ways, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface for understanding and respecting the diversity around us; no single discussion can offer all the answers (Poe and Fruehling, 2000). Because learning about others is an ongoing process, we must find the answers as much through our experiences as through research. Most of the youth of America and Europe are already multicultural. According to US census figures, a third of Americans aged 17 to 27 are Native Americans or of African, Latino, or Asian descent. Another study shows that 80 percent of teens have a close friend of another race. Bilingual Canada has long compared the diversity of its people to a mosaic. But now, immigrants from all parts of the world such as Italy, Greece, and Hong Kong add their voices to the medley of French, English and Inuit. Radio station CHIN in Toronto broadcasts in 32 languages. The United Sates has more than 1100 mosques and Islamic centres, 1500 Buddhist centres and 800 Hindu centres. People work in Japanese plants in many parts of America and Europe. Employees of many MNCs come from countries around the world and speak dozens of languages (Varner, 2000).
Business communication and culture
Each of us grows up in a distinct culture, which has created patterns of acceptable behaviour and belief. These cultural traits are embedded in us, and come out when we begin to communicate with others, particularly from the other cultures. People interact not merely to give and get information; it is also meant to understand others about their activity, or also their social or economic status, as an input to determine the type of relationship he/she has to make with the other person. In many of the Western countries, one’s profession speaks out who he is, but in many Eastern cultures, one’s family describes who he is. Thus, we can classify cultures as high context and low context. In high context cultures, the information is derived from the context of a message, little is explicitly told. This happens with most of the Eastern cultures like the Japanese, Arabic, etc., and the Latin American cultures. However, in the low context cultures, the context does not have much significance, because most of the information is explicitly given. This happens in most of the Western cultures. Low context cultures acknowledge different kinds of communication and have diverse outlook towards oral and written channels of communication. They favour direct approaches and have the stance that the indirectness is manipulative or not straightforward. The written word has more prominence than the oral statements and thus, contracts are binding and details have much importance. This explains why business communication in most of the Western countries reflects the low context preferences (Robert Gibson, 2002).
Thus, culture influences all the vital elements of the business communication. These include, for instance, how to show courtesy and respect, how much information is to be passed to the other person, how to motivate people, how loud to talk, and even what size paper to use for correspondences. However, there are other factors that may affect the business communication process, such as the organisational culture and the personal culture, which includes factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, etc. All these factors overlap each other to agree on what type of communication is needed in a particular situation that arises in a business communication context. Sometimes, one kind of culture will get the dominance and will be accepted by all, which is also a matter of linguistic as well as interactive appropriateness. There are also many other factors like: values, beliefs and practices, non verbal communication that involves the body language; the personal space which includes the touch, different aspects of oral communication like the understatement, exaggeration, compliments; and silence that contribute to effective business communication.
The first step in knowing the soul of another culture is to understand that it may do things in a different manner, and that this difference is not in any way wrong, bad or inferior. But it should be understood that the people within a single culture differ. These differences can transform to stereotypes, which can cause damage just like ignorance. A stereotype can be defined as a fixed idea or image that many people have of a particular type of person or thing, but which is not true in reality (Carbaugh, 1990). Generalisations and categories are very much helpful to some extent, but when they become very much rigid, they act as barriers that may lead us to misinterpret a situation. In cultural communication, in particular, it is very much important to differentiate between what is part of a person’s cultural background and what is part of their personality. Hofstede uses a model of the pyramid to explain the different levels of exclusivity in human mental programming. According to him, this includes three factors, i.e. personality on top of the pyramid, culture in the middle and human nature at the bottom. Our very human nature urges us to do many things; to put it simply, we need to eat, sleep and survive. These are universal and inherited features. Our culture is responsible also for many of our thoughts; for instance, when we should go for breakfast and sleep and how far should we fight with the circumstances to survive. These are characteristic that are very much specific to a particular group of people, and are acquired through learning. Many of our other thoughts and actions are determined by our individual personality. These characteristics are specific to us as individuals, and are both inherited and learnt. When trying to understand the behaviour of others, it is important to understand all these levels. This is very important to avoid stereotypes. Brenda Arbeleez opines that a successful intercultural communicator should be aware that his or her preferred values and behaviours are influenced by culture and are not necessarily correct. He or she should be flexible and open to change, sensitive to verbal and non verbal behaviour, aware of the values, beliefs and practices in other cultures, and also sensitive to the differences among individuals within a culture.
Misunderstandings are common in communication across cultures. A European-American teacher sends two African-American students to the principal’s office because they are fighting. European-Americans consider fighting to have started when loud voices, insults, and postures indicate that violence is likely. But the African-American culture does not assume that those signs will lead to violence, they can be part of non-violent disagreements. An Arab student assumed that his American roommate disliked him intensely because the American student sat around the room with his feet up on the furniture, soles towards the Arab roommate. Arab culture sees the foot in general and the sole in particular as unclean; showing the sole of the foot is an insult.
Here are some examples of common stereotypes related to Chinese people and the Americans. The well known stereotype about the Chinese is that they drink tea and are calm and vigilant, but the Americans are coffee drinkers and hence, they are very much energetic and adventurous. Americans consider Chinese as very brilliant with good skills in mathematics and computers, but Chinese believe Americans are clever, optimistic, and open. Westerners still have the perception that China is ruled by a hard line dictatorship; however, the Chinese political system is very much socialist with a great thrust on capitalism. Chinese business focuses on the integrity of long-term relationships (Becker, Gerhold K. (Ed.) 1996). When Chinese people interact with foreigners, they like general statements and vagueness. But to the contrary, Americans are very precise in their communication. Eye contact is generally considered as disobedient by the Chinese just like hugs and kisses, but Americans do not. The Americans typically stand at a distance respecting the personal space, while the Chinese prefer shorter distances. These stereotypes mentioned above can be changed, but the most significant thing that has to be understood is that there should not be any misunderstandings (Wu, 2008).
When a greater number of people from diverse backgrounds, nations, cultures, ideologies and religions immigrate to distant lands, those nations naturally become an intercultural junction where cultures melt together. This creates a peculiar situation where the native population will join with the immigrants and create a very new environment where both of them can live with a mutual give and take. This includes a greater amount of intercultural tolerance and accepting the differences co-exist with their survival. In this situation, stereotypes can be regarded as a set of presupposed characteristics about a certain group of people whose actual beliefs, attitudes, preferences, habits and realities, more often than not, disagree with the imposed assumptions. Stereotypes occur in thought process and analysis based on factors like racism, cultural factors, exaggeration, distortion, ignorance, or even historical experiences. Stereotyping can well be said as a negative way of observing people. This proves right when we think upon the so-called “positive stereotypes”. A positive stereotype is when people employ a blanket expression for a whole population, i.e. all the Indians are religious, all Japanese are hardworking, or all English people have good manners. Even though the intention behind the argument is constructive, it however does not reflect the truth. Such suppositions about people from other countries are prevalent all over the world. But this is not a matter that should be encouraged or justified in any sense. The thing that comes out of this issue is that it requires a cultural literacy drive to make people to become very much culturally competent. Cultural competency can be defined as the readiness and capacity to work, converse and survive across cultures and cultural boundaries. This can be achieved only through gathering greater experience and through an open mind that is ready to acculturate with a greater passion to know and respect other cultures on an in-depth level. These efforts should also be complemented with changes in perception and behaviour. Cultural competency is thus very much essential in pursuing business communication without stereotypes.
The global village has given us a single citizenship, and we are no more tethered to a particular nation or culture. The global situation has drastically changed that everyday we have to interact with people from different cultures, nationalities, ideologies, ethnicities, religions and colours. Thus, it is essential for every one who is practicing business communication to acquire skills in intercultural communication that defends stereotyping, which include the getting rid of many preoccupations. The first one is the assumptions. Every individual usually makes an assumption about others. Assumptions are generally personal opinions or evaluations which are, of course, formed out of cultural backgrounds and influenced by a number of subjective factors. Thus, it is necessary that people have to re-think about their common perceptions and go into the very root of the problems to analyse why they uphold such opinions. Another factor that greatly supports a good intercultural communicator is the empathy. Empathy helps to respect, assimilate and learn different cultures and the perceptions of people from that cultures.
The next aspect that helps to understand other cultures is the involvement. Involving others in the sphere of our thought can produce wonderful results; that we can see that the ice is breaking. Herd mentality is the other factor, which is defined as a one dimensional approach, which has a narrow vision that restricts ingenuity, originality and advancement. It restricts people from suggesting solutions, finding the way to tackle a problem or taking challenges. Cultural competency can only be developed if people are given immense freedom to think creatively leaving their biases. Insensitive behaviour can also do the damage. Insensitive way of dealing with things can only foster divisiveness, and thus, very much detrimental to effective business communication. Wisdom is the final element that works to promote good intercultural business communication, showing a balance and judgment of thought and action. Through intellectually approaching a problem, intercultural differences can be avoided and an effective business communication can be made (Brake et.al, 1992; Brislin, 1997).
Diversity increases in the global marketplace, where your customers, suppliers, subordinates or bosses may have different cultural values and business practices. Business increasingly transcends national boundaries. Businessweek reports that two-thirds of all industries either already operate globally or are in the process of doing so; for instance, McDonald’s earns more than 62 percent of its income outside the United Sates and nearly 98 percent of Nokia’s sales are outside its home country, Finland. As many companies have discovered, valuing diversity is good business as well as social practice. A growing body of literature shows that ethnically-diverse teams produce more and higher quality ideas. One problem with the awareness of differences, however, is that when someone feels shut out, he or she can attribute the negative interaction to prejudice, when other factors may be responsible. A second problem is that members of a dominant group can recognise differences but still expect everyone to adapt to them, rather than making the effort to understand the preferred communication styles of other workers. These are caused mainly by stereotyping, which require a specific skill set to tackle. In Japan, silence can mean ‘I don’t like your idea’ but it can also mean ‘I am thinking’; knowing this is essential for international negotiators. This also includes lessons that language does not discriminate against people on the basis of sex, physical condition, race, age or any other category. Modern day business communication emphasises these principles, and sticking to them can help get over the idea of stereotypes.