If people are willing to do business together, language or culture should be no barrier at all – historically, there have even been spontaneously devised languages to facilitate communication between two trading nations. So are problems with intercultural communication still relevant in the XXI century, when English has become the lingua franca of the world? Well, it seems that it’s more important than ever.
Russenorsk is currently an unused pidgin language that was forged nearly two hundred years ago on the Russia-Norwiegian border. It was used mainly by Russian merchants and Norwegian fishermen to make barter trade easier. The language itself started to exist when both parties tried to “speak the language of the other,” the hodgepodge of vocabulary and mutual mistakes creating its own language in time.
The story of this language is a clear indication that when there is a business to be done, people are willing to change much in their communication in order to cross cultural boundaries. That’s why offshoring and outsourcing are in such good conditions nowadays.
On the other hand, though, overlooking the importance of intercultural communication usually ends in two basic scenarios:
- Communication goes well and teams appear to fully understand each other. A US company finds it comfortable to connect and share updates with their offshore programmers and everything seems to be going well. But in the end, it ends with disaster – the product quality is unacceptable or there is simply no final product delivered at all.
- Communication goes terribly wrong from the start and the teams seem to be from other planets. Both sides struggle to effectively communicate. But in the end, when the US company is ready to face the oncoming disaster, what arrives is a finished product – and not only finished, but it is exceptional and delivered on time.
Both scenarios are confusing for the US client and both could have been easy to avoid if there were a bigger emphasis put on intercultural communication.
What is intercultural communication
Intercultural communication is an interdisciplinary science that describes a wide range of communication processes between different cultures and social groups. Those in the field study how backgrounds like religion, culture, ethics and language influence the messages they send and encode.
The key goal of intercultural communication is to facilitate and ease the communication process between different people from different cultures as well as people from various backgrounds. The specialists in the field study anthropology, history and linguistics as well as psychology and communication.
In the business communication context, intercultural communication aims to avoid any interference or misunderstandings that would otherwise make effective communication on the international level nearly impossible. Unintentional insults are the best example of a communication incident that any business would wish to avoid.
What are barriers to intercultural communication in business
So what exactly makes intercultural communication necessary when there are two individuals speaking a common language (English in most cases)? There are three main barriers that make the process challenging, sometimes even rendering it impossible:
- Assumption of similarity – this group of communication barriers is founded on the hidden assumption, that as we “are all people” we share common values and, in fact, we are all the same. This illusion is enhanced by the Internet and the “global village” paradigm. This can be true, but is not always the rule, and can induce various misunderstandings and confusion. Especially in the case when two parties talk and come away with totally different outcomes.
- Prejudice – this barrier comes from people’s natural tendency to simplify reality to make it comprehensible. Yet this natural tendency leads us to making false and sometimes hurtful assumptions about the encountered individual.
- Ethnocentrism – this is usually both a source and an effect of prejudices. Ethnocentrism is basically about considering one’s own culture to be superior over others on any given aspect, be that an approach to problem-solving or concepts of punctuality.
All of the barriers described above come as a result of varied perceptions of key cultural concepts, the sole basics of the intercultural communication process.
What are the most challenging cultural aspects of intercultural communication
When it comes to culture, most people tend to take it for granted. We are aware that there are people who have different cuisines or wedding traditions. But there are concepts that are too obvious or too inherent to our perception that one may not even notice they exist, and any distortion of these concepts is shocking. That’s where intercultural communication skills are vital.
From elaborate rituals known in Japan to the familiarity seen in US culture – there are various ways to interact and show respect. Or – a lack thereof.
It is considered rude in Japan to blow your nose publicly, and so is sneezing. Thus blowing your nose during a meeting would be a large faux pas. People avoid doing it in public transport or near their desk, preferring to blow their nose in the toilet or at least in a less public space. On the other hand though, the western world considers public nose blowing as nothing to be ashamed of, and people do it in the street or near their desk.
Also, our approach to time can have a tight connection with respect. A good example comes from Saudi Arabia, where people tend to show a “relaxed” approach to time schedules, while in Poland being late on an appointment is seen as disrespectful. Even showing a great deal of good will from both sides, it remains easy to have a miscommunication with one party feeling insulted and the second one not knowing what the problem could be.
Although the meaning of a particular word often remains the same across cultures, the connotations can be vastly different regarding one’s cultural background. A good example comes from idioms used locally, even if the language remains the same.
Just think about an eccentric person. One could say of him that he’s got:
- In UK – bats in the belfry
- In Australia – a kangaroo loose in the top paddock
The other problem is about the real meaning of words in a particular culture. Does the word “awesome” represent the same level of awesomeness in the US, the UK, Australia, Poland and Russia? As cross cultural communication studies show – no, it does not. The same goes with several other phrases or expressions that are used to encode messages about enthusiasm and acceptance.
In the worst case scenario a person from one culture might show a lack of enthusiasm in the best way he or she can, while the person from the other culture understands the message as being amazed and excited.
Last but not least, the challenge described in this article is the cultural approach toward problem solving. A common misconception for a US company when cooperating with a Polish company, for example, is that:
- Poles lack faith in the purpose of the project
- Poles are depressive and lack enthusiasm
In the core of this stereotype is the typically Polish approach to problem solving, Poles name a problem as the first step to solving it. On the other hand, simply naming a problem without showing at least the motivation to solve it can be interpreted as a lack of faith in the project in many cultures.
Summary – why do we teach intercultural communication in Tooploox
The issues mentioned above seem minor when compared to the scale of international programming projects, but they can easily undermine efforts to deliver working solutions. With every communicational failure, there is a new crack in the cooperation between companies. And every crack reduces the chance to deliver a project on time as well as threatens the very foundation of the cooperation at large.
That’s why, at Tooploox, we provide our developers and product design and delivery teams with training on intercultural communication itself, in addition to general English lessons. This helps to ensure that they will not only speak the language of the client but also to fully understand what he or she wishes to communicate.
If you wish to talk more about the role of intercultural communication in delivering the IT and AI projects or how we’re working to solve our culture-related challenges in Tooploox, just drop us a line – we would be happy to answer any and every question!