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Interacting with people from different cultures and in different locations around the world is now just another day at the office for most people. The advent of the internet, inexpensive travel, international business, and even, more robust study abroad programs, means that more people than ever before are exploring the world and connecting cross-culturally daily. However, that doesn't mean that cross-cultural communication is easy, and even with shared languages and experiences, individuals are beginning to face communications challenges that stem from differences in culture. As intercultural interactions become the norm among the population, individuals must develop new and robust communication skills that transcend cultural differences.
What is culture?
Culture encompasses the social norms and behaviors of a particular society or group, and those norms and behaviors vary greatly across peoples and countries. One of the most descriptive, and perhaps most accurate, concepts of culture uses an iceberg to illustrate the components of culture that are obvious and those that are hidden, offering a clear illustration of just how complicated culture can be to interpret and understand.
The very tip of the iceberg, or the smallest portion that is visible above the surface of the water, features visible or identifiable components of culture, such as food, dress, language, dance, arts, etc. These visible components tend to be easily understood at face value. Lurking beneath the surface are the more foundational and often misunderstood components of culture, like interpretations, core values and morals, ways of communicating and assumptions. All of these concepts resting below the surface of the iceberg are complicated and rarely change easily or frequently, thus making them harder to understand and interpret for someone outside of the "in" group.
This simplified, but accurate, depiction of the true complexity of culture helps to underscore the complexity of intercultural communication. Intercultural communication is the process of communication that occurs when individuals from one culture connect with individuals from another. Now, those two individuals most likely have very diverse and different cultural norms and particular ways of communicating, making the likelihood of miscommunication or misunderstanding very high.
How Does Culture Make Communication Difficult?
Communication issues with individuals from other cultures stem from the ways in which a particular culture applies hierarchies, understands communication norms, makes assumptions about interactions, finalizes and institutes decisions, and much more. For instance, consider direct vs indirect communication styles. Western cultures and parts of Latin America tend to be much more straightforward with their communication which means they say what they mean and tend to be frank and honest with their feedback. Some non-Western cultures, on the other hand, are not as direct in their communication and have a tendency to imply responses or avoid directly responding to questions.
Additionally, the use of hierarchies and authority within organizations can have a profound impact on communications. One culture might be well versed in the idea of a flat organization where anyone can raise issues to the CEO or managers. In other organizations, the hierarchical ladder must be observed and workers towards the bottom are only supposed to bring up these new ideas or problems with their direct manager. During interactions with individuals or group meetings with many different levels of participants, certain individuals might not share their ideas if senior staff members are in the room or they might not elevate problems if managers are present. This can cause problems that resonate beyond miscommunications and affect business practices or relationships.
To illustrate these issues more clearly, an example in software outsourcing is when differing hierarchies and communication styles within teams leads to lags in product development as teams wait for approval to be given by the correct person. Additionally, under these circumstances, problems with development might not be clearly stated or elevated until the product launch which could spell disaster for both parties. For this reason (and many others), nearshoring has become a very popular alternative to offshore software development. Nearshoring cuts down on (but does not completely eliminate!) miscommunications due to culture because of the geographical proximity of the outsourcing partner.
[RELEVANT CONTENT: Need a nearshoring partner? Here´s a guide to finding the best fit.]
In our experience as software outsourcing professionals working with clients from over 14 countries, we've become familiar with a lot of the communication nuances present when working with different cultures. That doesn't mean we have perfected the art of communication by any means, but we have compiled best practices that can ease intercultural communication pains. Consequently, we've put together a part 2 of this article outlining those practices in order to help guide individuals in their interactions with people from different cultures.
Stay tuned for the ten guidelines to achieving successful intercultural communications!