Cross-cultural communication

Cultural awareness in the workplace

Canadian teacher, Lynn Rousseau, couldn’t quite understand why her American students were looking at her with a strange look on their faces after she corrected their use of the word, “what.” Whenever she’d hear her students say “what” at the end of an interrogatory statement, she would immediately correct them and have them replace this word with “pardon” when they needed clarification on something she had said in class.

In Canada, if a person says, “pardon”, it signals to the speaker that the person needs the statement repeated either because it wasn’t understood or because it wasn’t heard. For a person to say, “what” when seeking clarification is considered very rude in Canadian culture, but not in American culture. So, when Rousseau corrected her students, they would look at her as though she had two heads.

With her initial lack of cultural awareness, she remembers thinking that American students were quite impolite and couldn’t believe that their parents would allow them to speak that way. It didn’t take her long however, to realize that the students weren’t being rude – they were just being American. Rousseau admits that this was a unique moment for her, learning this subtle – albeit important cultural difference. And although there has been a rumor going around for quite some time now that Americans are not seen favorably on the international stage, this rumor doesn’t seem to fit the reality – at least not for the vast majority of countries surveyed.

[American editor’s note: while reviewing this content I realize I may need to have a chat with my Canadian blog writer — Americans, rude? Never!]

In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 38 nations, asking one simple question, Do you have a favorable view of the U.S.?

Cross cultural communication-Favorable view of the US
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Most of Europe, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific region, and Africa seem to favor Americans, compared to the majority of the Muslim countries surveyed who seem to have a less favorable view.

When communication faux pas occur, it can often lead to misinformed opinions and negative cultural stereotypes

Being fully immersed in a different culture might be intimidating and confusing at first but eventually, the vast majority of people will pick up on the new cultural and linguistic subtleties and incorporate them into their everyday lives. However, not everyone has this luxury. If you are trying to communicate with a global audience from your particular neck of the woods, you might not know it, but you could be inadvertently offending your patrons. And when these communication faux pas occur, it can often lead to misinformed opinions and negative cultural stereotypes, further complicating the situation. 

Perhaps one perfect example of this is calling people by their first name. More and more North American businesses seem to be promoting the use of first names when communicating with customers. When customer service call centers interact with customers, employees feel quite comfortable with using the customer’s first name.

This might be more of a generational issue than a cultural one. It seems that the younger generation feels comfortable with addressing customers by their first name, claiming that it develops a personable connection. Older generations however, are less inclined to feel this way and much prefer a somewhat distant, formal, or professional use of a customer’s last name, preceded by “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “Miss”, or “Mrs.”. When older customers are addressed by their first name, many are taken aback, and even insulted. Again, the intention is not to come across as arrogant or disrespectful but that might just be the opinion being formed.

Addressing individuals or a group of individuals can be another tricky obstacle to overcome. The English language has only one true form for the second person – “you.” There is no real plural form, although in order to indicate plurality, some English speakers might use, “you all”, or “all of you”, and if you are from the southern United States, you might use the slang, “y’all.” However, in its formal structure, the English language does not differentiate between “you” singular and “you” plural.

[American Editor’s second note to his Canadian blogwriter: “y’all” is a perfectly acceptable word and should be used more frequently]

Some cultures, such as French and Spanish, might perceive this as impolite, or at the very least, not very dignified. In the French language, “vous” is not just the plural form of “you” but it is also used to show respect for strangers, persons of authority, or older people. For a French person in any part of the globe to use “tu” when addressing any of these individuals would be considered very disrespectful.

The same is true in Spanish with the use of “Usted.” Whether in Latin America or in Spain, “usted” is used as a sign of respect when speaking to an older person, a stranger, or a person who holds a position of authority. However, even within the Spanish language, there are differences. For instance, in Latin America, the plural form of “you” is either “vosotros” or “ustedes.” The former indicates a much more relaxed and familiar tone and the latter, more formal. In Spain, it is completely acceptable and commonplace to use “vosotros” when talking to a group of friends, and “ustedes” when addressing a formal group. In Latin America on the other hand, whether you are addressing a group of friends or a formal group, “ustedes” is the norm. A keen awareness of cultural diversity goes a long way to promote effective communication and avoid cultural barriers to communication.

But when it comes to being polite, perhaps the Japanese take the cake

The Japanese word, ていねい (pronounced, “teinei”) is roughly translated to mean, polite, kind, conscientious, and courteous, but it also refers to the level of care given toward something or someone. It is the act of being careful and thorough in one’s actions and words.

In Japan, the culture literally centers around being selfless and ensuring the best experiences are given to others. There is a certain patience and level of respect in Japan that is just not parallel anywhere else on the planet. Japanese are not boastful. They are patient, they listen to varying opinions, they do not complain, and they certainly do not place blame. Japanese people are known for dressing impeccably so as not to offend others. They are raised to be extraordinary citizens, even cleaning up after themselves and others if necessary.

頑張る (pronounced “ganbaru”) roughly translates to the encouragement of suffering in silence no matter the struggle. “Ganburu” is perhaps more accurately described as enduring hardships and never giving in. This is the Japanese way, and it sets this culture apart from almost all others. Some may argue that holding in emotions leads to physical, mental, and even emotional illness and that it is much healthier to express one’s feelings. Being honest and upfront to some, is the very definition of respect. Clearly, from culture to culture, there are varying opinions on the best way to show respect. So, what are some cross cultural solutions?

Even a basic understanding of cultural diversity goes a long way

No matter how different our cultural experiences, our history, our social or our political realities, we somehow still need to find ways to communicate across the oceans that separate us. How do we do this effectively with so many cultural idiosyncrasies? How do we learn to effectively communicate and learn the politeness markers from region to region?

Even a basic understanding of cultural diversity goes a long way. Cross cultural communication is becoming more and more commonplace in the workforce, and although the English language is considered the international language of business, English speakers who practice clear, simple, unambiguous dialogue will reach a greater audience, develop healthier cross cultural connections, and strengthen their business communication.

There are increasing numbers of organizations that now offer cross cultural training in order to educate their staff on the various linguistic subtleties, religious differences, celebrations, holidays, and cultural sensitivities that they need to be aware of when communicating with clients or partners.

Firm handshakes between business partners, for instance, may work in the United States, but a peck on the cheek works just as effectively in France. The key is making the effort – becoming aware of our cultural differences and working toward decreasing the number and degree of negative cultural stereotypes in the ever-growing global workforce.

[Editor’s final note: please stick to firm handshakes when greeting us prudish Americans]


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