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Improving intercultural communications is essential to ensuring that your software development outsourcing initiatives succeed. Communication barriers stemming from cultural differences can result in significant problems that can lead to disastrous outcomes within any software development outsourcing project.
In a world in which organizations, and even countries, are seemingly constantly engaged in a race to dominate technology, IT outsourcing has become an essential component of success.
Speed is the name of the game and finding great talent that can help you innovate and improve efficiency is essential. Currently, the best way of doing that is through offshore and nearshore outsourcing.
In either case, for effective results, achieving excellent intercultural communication is key. Free and flexible communication is vital in the success of any IT outsourcing project, especially for an organization that understands the only way to win the race is through agile development and innovation.
However, even though the world has become a much smaller place thanks to the internet, communication issues still arise because many people don't consider culture.
Culture refers to everything that is transmitted on a social level from one generation to the next, including behavior, architecture, art, language, symbols, norms, rituals, and so on. It is what defines how people see the world and interpret life.
When two people come from vastly different cultures, communication can be difficult. In some cases, even two people from the same culture can have communication issues because each culture tends to have multiple sub-cultures.
For example, one can consider North American culture as a whole, which can then be separated into Canadian and U.S. culture. The latter can be broken down into African American culture, Hispanic culture, Asian American culture, and so on. Even these sub-cultures have their own sub-cultures.
Of course, communication between people hailing from the same culture but different sub-cultures will be easier than communication between two people from vastly different cultures.
This difficulty arises because people from different cultures have different mindsets, different languages, different symbols, and different beliefs.
Culture can also lead to ethnocentrism, prejudice, opinions and manners because it drives the way people behave and think. Culture also plays a vital role in how we communicate, but how we communicate also determines our culture.
For example, Germans are direct and blunt in their communication, which is part of their culture. On the other hand, in India, communication is far more indirect, which is why a German visiting India might be considered rude, even if that is not the intent.
When it comes to improving intercultural communications, it's essential to first understand what the main barriers are to effective communication.
The first barrier to improving intercultural communications is language. Though we often don't realize it, English is not the language of the world – not yet, at least. In fact, billions of people don't speak or understand English at all, while plenty more don't have a good understanding of it.
When someone can't communicate in a language properly, it can lead to a variety of misunderstandings and make intercultural communication far more difficult.
Different groups of people and cultures have developed their own languages, and people tend to be most comfortable communicating in their own language. While many people learn new languages, it still takes time to get to a level where they can understand all the subtleties of that language. Many don't get to this point simply because it requires constant exposure to natives and to the culture to grasp those subtleties.
Even people who speak the same language can have problems communicating due to a variety of factors. For example, slang is one such issue. Slang is often geographical in nature, so an American from the US, for example, might have difficulty understanding British slang and vice versa, even though they are speaking the same language.
Accent is another such consideration. One example is the Scottish accent. Even native English speakers have trouble understanding a pronounced Scottish accent, despite the fact that they are speaking English. For foreigners, it's practically impossible to understand them.
Tone also plays a role. In cultures where people are direct, their tone tends to be more assertive when sharing an idea or giving directions. However, in a country like Japan, people speak more softly and tend to be more passive, so someone from the United States would be considered rude because of their tone.
Signs and gestures can also cause problems in communication between people from two different cultures. The same gesture can have vastly different meanings in different cultures.
For example, a thumbs-up in many cultures is considered a positive sign wishing you luck or acting as a sign of approval. In Bangladesh, however, it is considered an insult.
Likewise, nodding your head means "yes" in many cultures, while shaking it means "no." However, in India the opposite is true. So, if an Indian shakes their head, they mean "yes", and when they nod, they mean "no." They also don't shake their heads in the same way a person from North America might be used to which can cause even more confusion.
People from different cultures can also develop different beliefs and behaviors. They can differ in personality, body language, thought processes, communication styles, and more, which can result in misunderstandings.
For example, in western culture, it's perfectly acceptable – even encouraged – to share a new idea, even if it's different from what a person in a position of authority recommends. In some cultures, though, disagreeing with someone in authority is considered disrespectful and simply isn't done. So, people from those cultures are far less likely to share different ideas, even if they don't directly contradict someone in power.
Another example of different behavior is kissing. In some cultures, such as France, Romania, Poland or Latin America, kissing someone on the cheek is a standard way of saying hello or good-bye to basically everyone. However, someone from the U.S. or the U.K. who doesn't know might take it as a sign of romantic interest, which happens more frequently than you might think.
The "kissing" example is interesting because it shows how even cultures that at first glance appear very similar can differ wildly and lead to errors in communication.
While we might not want to discuss it, the fact is that prejudice does play a significant role in intercultural communication. Sadly, humanity has not yet evolved to the point where we can be completely open-minded. We still have prejudices, some of which are subconscious, that can make communicating even more difficult. Prejudice stems from a number of factors, including stereotyping, ethnocentrism, and religion.
Stereotyping refers to attributing certain characteristics to an entire people, characteristics which often have little to do with reality. In essence, it's basically thinking that all Japanese people are the same and must all love manga and play computer games all day long. Unfortunately, stereotyping tends to be negative and can be done based on all sorts of things like race, ethnicity, gender, age and so on. For example, the idea that all followers of Islam are violent is a negative stereotype and can result in significant problems. It also doesn't help that the media has a bad habit of promoting certain stereotypes.
Prejudice can also result from ethnocentrism, which basically means that the people of one culture view people from another culture as being outsiders. It's an "us" versus "them" scenario. In these situations, those who are part of the in-group tend to receive preferential treatment over outsiders.
It can go so far as people considering that anyone who is an outsider must be bad. People also often evaluate other cultures through the perspective of their own culture, which is, of course, the good and right one.
Unfortunately, ethnocentrism can lead to hostility and issues with understanding what other people are trying to say.
Religion can also create problems in communication, especially since it can lead to an "us" versus "them" scenario like ethnocentrism. It can also result in negative stereotyping, where people who follow a different religion have certain negative traits associated with them.
One of the most important things you can do towards improving intercultural communications is to become more self-aware. It means taking the time to understand your own culture so that you can identify potential problems.
Gaining more self-awareness also means identifying any prejudices you might have (many of which you might not be aware of) and getting rid of those prejudices. After all, it's impossible to communicate and work effectively with people whom you are prejudiced against.
Self-awareness will also ensure that you understand the importance of learning about other people's culture instead of expecting them to conform to yours. You might not even realize that's what you expect, but it does happen.
After all, you're paying and they're your IT outsourcing team so they should conform to your culture, right?
At PSL, we strongly advocate for meeting halfway because problems in intercultural communication aren't always the result of conscious actions. Furthermore, improving intercultural communications is a matter of working collaboratively and being open to looking at things differently. You'd be surprised how many misunderstandings and issues can be resolved when both parties make an effort to understand each other.
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