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Cross-Cultural Communication: Definition, Strategies & Examples

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  • 1:30 High- vs. Low-Context Culture
  • 3:08 Nonverbal Differences
  • 4:32 Language Differences
  • 5:20 Power Distance
  • 6:09 Cross-Cultural Strategies
  • 7:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Lombardo
Cross-cultural communication is imperative for companies that have a diverse workforce and participate in the global economy. It is important for employees to understand the factors that are part of an effective, diverse workforce.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-cultural communication has become strategically important to companies due to the growth of global business, technology, and the Internet. Understanding cross-cultural communication is important for any company that has a diverse workforce or plans on conducting global business. This type of communication involves an understanding of how people from different cultures speak, communicate, and perceive the world around them.

Cross-cultural communication in an organization deals with understanding different business customs, beliefs and communication strategies. Language differences, high-context vs. low-context cultures, nonverbal differences, and power distance are major factors that can affect cross-cultural communication.

Let's take a look at how cross-cultural differences can cause potential issues within an organization. Jack is a manager at a New Mexico-based retail conglomerate. He has flown to Japan to discuss a potential partnership with a local Japanese company. His business contact, Yamato, is his counterpart within the Japanese company. Jack has never been to Japan before, and he's not familiar with their cultural norms. Let's look at some of the ways that a lack of cultural understanding can create a barrier for business success by examining how Jack handles his meeting with Yamato.

High- vs. Low-Context Culture

The concept of high- and low-context culture relates to how an employee's thoughts, opinions, feelings, and upbringing affect how they act within a given culture. North America and Western Europe are generally considered to have low-context cultures. This means that businesses in these places have direct, individualistic employees who tend to base decisions on facts. This type of businessperson wants specifics noted in contracts and may have issues with trust.

High-context cultures are the opposite in that trust is the most important part of business dealings. There are areas in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that can be considered high context. Organizations that have high-context cultures are collectivist and focus on interpersonal relationships. Individuals from high-context cultures might be interested in getting to know the person they are conducting business with in order to get a gut feeling on decision making. They may also be more concerned about business teams and group success rather than individual achievement.

Jack and Yamato ran into some difficulties during their business negotiations. Jack spoke quickly and profusely because he wanted to seal the deal as soon as possible. However, Yamato wanted to get to know Jack, and he felt that Jack spoke too much. Yamato also felt that Jack was only concerned with completing the deal for his own self-interest and was not concerned with the overall good of the company. Jack's nonverbal cues did not help the negotiations either.

Nonverbal Differences

Gestures and eye contact are two areas of nonverbal communication that are utilized differently across cultures. Companies must train employees in the correct way to handle nonverbal communication as to not offend other cultures. For example, American workers tend to wave their hand and use a finger to point when giving nonverbal direction. Extreme gesturing is considered rude in some cultures. While pointing may be considered appropriate in some contexts in the United States, Yamato would never use a finger to point towards another person because that gesture is considered rude in Japan. Instead, he might gesture with an open hand, with his palm facing up, toward the person.

Eye contact is another form of nonverbal communication. In the U.S., eye contact is a good thing and is seen as a reflection of honesty and straightforwardness. However, in some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, prolonged eye contact can be seen as rude or aggressive in many situations. Women may need to avoid it altogether because lingering eye contact can be viewed as a sign of sexual interest. During their meeting, Jack felt that Yamato was not listening to his talking points because Yamato was not looking Jack in the eyes. However, Yamato did not want Jack to think he was rude, so he avoided looking directly into Jack's eyes during his speech.

Language Differences

The biggest issue dealing with cross-cultural communication is the difficulty created by language barriers. For example, Jack does not speak Japanese, so he is concerned with his ability to communicate effectively with Yamato. There are some strategies that Jack can use to help establish a rapport with Yamato. Jack can explain himself without words by using emotions, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. He can also use drawings and ask for an interpreter.

Additionally, companies that have to deal with cross-cultural communication can hire employees with proficiency in other languages. Fortunately for Jack and Yamato, they both had excellent translators who communicated their words. The next cross-cultural issue regards how individuals deal with power distance.

Power Distance

Power distance relates to how power is distributed within an organization. Typically, American companies utilize a low power distance and have more informal hierarchies that allow for interaction between executives and their subordinates. Managers ask for feedback from employees and will even socialize with subordinates. Companies with high power distance are typically very hierarchical in nature and have severe differences in authority. Some Japanese companies may utilize this power structure.

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