Cultural Differences In Business Communication: Why Do They Matter?
Cultural diversity continues to be an important topic in workplaces worldwide. In 2021, 46.2 million immigrants were recorded in the US, making up 14.2 percent of the population. In Europe, 2020 statistics showed 37.5 million foreign-born residents.
Such a diverse population means that work environments are now overflowing with a multitude of identities, cultures and traditions – and they are all the better for it.
Multinational Communication and Cultural Diversity Are Essential
For one thing, cultural diversity fosters more understanding and respect among colleagues. People learn to be more open-minded and flexible while gaining new perspectives on different cultures and ideas.
In addition, HBR notes that teams with diverse backgrounds can work more creatively to innovate and solve problems – plus customers and partners get better service. A multicultural workforce makes companies uniquely positioned to connect and communicate with a broader audience.
Diversity within a business also offers a competitive advantage for new market expansion. McKinsey found that companies with high ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to see higher returns than their low-diversity competition.
But while cultural diversity has many benefits, it also presents differences in how people communicate. And it’s important to understand these and work with them, to ensure business operations always run smoothly.
What Do Cultural Differences in Communication Look Like?
Cross-cultural communication is a well-researched field, and defines how people belonging to different cultures (e.g., nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, etc.) navigate their differences through language, gestures and body language.
One particularly good book on this topic is “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. This sets out eight ‘scales’ – representing the eight management behaviors that typically reveal cultural differences – coupled with examples for different countries.
Below we explore each of the scales in turn.
1. Communicating – explicit vs. implicit
Here, the scale ranges from ‘low-context’ cultures to ‘high-context’ cultures.
People in low-context cultures (e.g., America, the Netherlands, Australia) are plainer with their messages. They say what they mean directly, and communication is straightforward.
By contrast, high-context cultures (e.g., China, Japan, Korea) consider good communication to be layered and nuanced. Simple phrases may have implied meanings, and it’s up to the listener to infer what’s meant.
2. Evaluating – direct vs. indirect negative feedback
Some cultures, like Israel, France and Sweden, give (and expect to receive) direct negative feedback. However, someone from Thailand, Canada or India might find this rude or offensive because it’s polite to be more cautious with negative feedback.
3. Persuading – deductive vs. inductive
This can also be thought of as “concept-first” (deductive) vs. “application-first” (inductive).
For example, Italian culture prefers to focus on theory and follow up with facts or opinions. Conversely, Americans typically lead with practical application and move on to abstract theory later.
Here, a difference in culture could cause confusion or tension in a business context if both parties don’t understand that they’re taking different paths to arrive at the same outcome.
4. Leading – egalitarian vs. hierarchical
In egalitarian cultures like Denmark, executives are equal with the rest of the team, and it’s common to skip hierarchical formalities when communicating.
In hierarchical societies like Japan and Nigeria, however, status is critical and strict formalities must be maintained. Leaders are strong and separate from subordinates, so it would be disrespectful for workers to “skip the line” and speak directly with a boss.
5. Deciding – consensual vs. top-down
In most cultures, how leadership is viewed ties to how decisions are made. For instance, Nigerians expect top-down decision-making, but the Dutch expect everyone to reach a consensus.
6. Trusting – task vs. relationship
“Task-based” trust means that business relationships are primarily practical and based on work situations. In the US, businesses generally trust legal contracts and practicality because they believe in the judicial system’s support if problems arise.
“Relationship-based” trust builds more slowly, based on sharing personal time and getting to know a colleague. In places like Saudi Arabia and China, personal relationships are integral to building professional trust.
7. Disagreeing – confrontation vs. avoidance
Confrontation is a positive, appropriate behavior in some cultures. Still, in others, it’s highly inappropriate and can harm a working relationship.
Disagreement is often a sensitive topic in the workplace. It’s important to understand that a coworker who seems argumentative may have a different cultural view of debate and decision-making. This helps smooth over misunderstandings and keep harmony.
8. Scheduling – structured vs. flexible
We often joke about how various cultures view time. Some, like the Germans, are ultra-precise and methodical. They value punctuality, order and strict schedules. Others, like the Spanish, take a more relaxed approach. Being “on time” has a different meaning. Tasks can be completed in any order as convenient, and a flexible schedule is much more valued.
Overcome Cultural Differences in Business Communication Through Cultural Intelligence
Teams that communicate effectively with customers from other cultures are clearly a huge asset to a business. And this is where Cultural Intelligence (aka Cultural Quotient or CQ) comes into play.
Cultural Intelligence is a team’s ability to effectively work with and relate to colleagues and clients from other cultures. Studies have shown that high-CQ businesses have measurably better customer loyalty, employee satisfaction and financial success.
Here are ten tips to improve CQ in your business relationships:
- Research other cultures: Take time to learn about different cultures so you can forge meaningful relationships at work.
- Facilitate meaningful conversation: Be curious. Ask colleagues about their culture and customs.
- Become more self-aware: It starts with you. Acknowledge what you don’t know, and be willing to learn more about yourself.
- Avoid slang: Slang can be confusing even within similar cultures. Stick to more formal speech to avoid confusion.
- Practice active listening: Summarize what your colleagues are saying. Ask intelligent questions to further your understanding.
- Avoid closed questions: Facilitate discussion with thoughtful, open-ended questions.
- Be careful with humor: Humor is subjective, even within the same culture. Be cautious and professional.
- Embrace agility: Remain flexible and willing to try something unfamiliar.
- Be open-minded: Understand that your way isn’t “right” or “wrong.” It’s simply different.
- Be supportive: Differences are healthy. Even if you don’t share an opinion, support your colleague as a fellow human.
Cross-cultural communication is just one facet of an organization’s overall communication strategy. But taking steps to improve it will help you get the most out of your people and your business when working internationally.
Learning how to communicate well with anyone requires a deeper awareness of one’s own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. The rewards of effective cross-cultural communication – stronger relationships, improved performance, and greater employee satisfaction – are well worth this effort.