Communicating in a culturally appropriate manner can be a tricky thing to learn for all of us. Culture, after all, is an elaborate code consisting of thousands of subtle micro-elements. We all would do well to remember that, when someone from a distinct cultural group behaves differently than us within the work environment, it is not necessarily because they have poor soft skills or inappropriate values. Rather, they may very likely have strong soft skills and values that work well and are accepted in their native cultural environment.
Cultures vary in many dimensions. For example, Canada is largely an individualistic and egalitarian culture. This is expressed by how we value and praise individual achievement and teach our children to be independent, the fact that we use first names for most people and the emphasis put on taking initiative. Many countries are considerably more collective and hierarchical. They tend to use “we” more than “I” when discussing achievements, use titles when referring to those of higher rank, and expect to be supervised more closely on the job. There are many manifestations of these differences and, although we may prefer one approach to another, there is no intrinsic right or wrong in these approaches. They are simply an expression of values and expectations largely adopted unconsciously through life experience within particular cultural environments.
When we look at team work, we see that those from collective cultures tend to share work responsibilities more readily than people from more individualist cultures who may prefer to more clearly delineate responsibility. Collectively-oriented individuals may wait to be asked rather than speaking up in groups whereas, in more individualistic contexts, if you don’t speak up, the common assumption is that you don’t have anything to say. When something goes wrong, individual responsibility may not be highlighted much in a collectively-oriented culture whereas individually-oriented teams focus more on individual responsibility.
Likewise, when working in mixed cultural teams including members from both hierarchical and egalitarian cultures, problems may arise. In hierarchical cultures, ideas from high-ranking team members tend to be given considerably more value than those from lower-status positions. While some deference to status is common worldwide, people from egalitarian cultures tend to emphasize both the importance of participation from all levels as well as the importance of saying what you think, despite differences in status.
When observing how people interact – including our own behaviour — we may be able to improve relations if we ask ourselves certain questions and identify our assumptions. For example:
1. When and how is it appropriate to take initiative?
2. How do we draw lines or set boundaries regarding taking responsibility?
3. Who should we share information with and what information should we share?
4. Whose opinion is more important and why?
5. What are the expectations around communication in general?
Clarifying these and other questions may illuminate our expectations and provide us with a forum to negotiate how we work together.
For more on cultural awareness in the context of the North American workplace, please have a look at the excellent four-part video of cross-cultural consultant, Lionel Laroche, presenting at a 2008 Conference entitled “Building Canada’s Future: The Role of the Settlement Sector in Ontario.” http://atwork.settlement.org/sys/atwork_whatshappen_detail.asp?anno_id=2007749
Nonverbals, an important aspect of communication, may also vary. For instance, individuals from Latino, African/African American, Arab, South American, or French backgrounds may tend to stand much closer together when conversing than do European Americans. In terms of facial expressions, while demonstrating congruence between your inner feelings and outward expressions is generally helpful, it is important to consider that in some cultures (e.g., Japanese and Chinese), restraint of strong emotions such as anger and sadness is considered to be a sign of wisdom and maturity. Tone of voice, too, can show considerable variation. Many Europeans Americans tend to speak more loudly and charismatically than people from Asian countries, but may be considered soft-spoken compared to Arabs. Finally, behaviors used to show that one is listening may also vary by culture. African Americans may not always look at their conversation partner, nod their head, or say “uh huh” to indicate that they are listening. The “take-home” message is that what is considered appropriately assertive can vary by culture. Be thoughtful about how your own cultural background and those of others may play a role.