Communicating and Negotiating across Cultures
COMMUNICATION FAILURE Consider these four vignettes of cross-cultural living, all of them authentic experiences.1
• Brits Clay and Joanne arrive in Auckland, New Zealand, for their holiday—the first time they have ever visited. They are monolingual and like the fact that New Zealand is an English-speaking country. They take an airport bus to the city center. They know their hotel is close by, so as they leave the bus they ask the driver for directions. “That’s easy,” says the driver. “Just follow the footpath a hundred meters and you’re there.” He closes the bus door and drives off. Clay and Joanne look around. There is no footpath in sight. What on earth did the driver mean?
• Stephanie, an American student, shares a dormitory room with Anong from Thailand. They get on well. Then, after they have lived together for several weeks, Anong abruptly announces that she has applied for a transfer to another room. Stephanie is surprised and upset and asks Anong why she wants to move. Anong is reluctant to speak but eventually says that she can’t stand Stephanie’s noisiness, loud stereo, late visitors, and untidiness. Stephanie is even more surprised; all this is new to her. “Couldn’t you have told me this sooner?” she asks. “Maybe I could have done something about it.”
• Ben is serving customers at a Texas drive-in fast-food outlet. It is hot, there are many customers, and Ben is tired. A black man drives up. He has ordered a cheeseburger combo. He pays Ben and takes his change. As Ben reaches for the order, the man inquires whether Ben is having a good day. “Not particularly,” Ben replies honestly. The man looks concerned, says sympathetically, “Me, either,” and
inquires after Ben’s health. Ben eyes the line of cars behind and says, “Sorry, sir, could you move on? We have a lot of customers to serve today.” He hands over the order, but the man looks at the food incredulously, almost disgustedly. He glares at Ben and drives off. Ben stares after him in surprise. “What did I do wrong?” he wonders.
• Harry, an American economist, is on a study tour in China. He visits an economic planning institute where a Chinese economist, who is interested in American forecasting techniques, invites him to return to China to give seminars. Harry is very interested in the offer, and says so, but adds that he has to check with his institute to get approval. Back in the United States, he is granted the necessary clearance and sends a message to China indicating that he is definitely available. But the Chinese never contact him again.
These cases, to which we will return, demonstrate communication failures that led to the breakdown of relationships, and all have cultural origins.
Communication is the fundamental building block of social experience. Whether selling, buying, negotiating, leading, or working with others, we communicate. And although the idea of communicating a message seems simple and straightforward—“You just tell it straight. And you listen.”— when it comes to figuring out what goes wrong in life, communication failure is by far the most common explanation.
Communication uses codes, systems of signs in which each sign signifies a particular idea, and conventions, agreed-upon norms about how, when, and in what context codes will be used. If people do not share the same codes and conventions, they will have difficulty communicating with each other. And codes and conventions are determined mainly by cultures. The most obvious example of unshared codes is different languages.
The communication breakdowns in our opening vignettes can be explained by cultural differences:
• In the first case Clay and Joanne are unaware that a “footpath” in New Zealand is what in the UK would be called “pavement” or what Americans call a “sidewalk.” This is an example of different codes.
• In the second case of the student whose Thai roommate moved out, culture and custom interfered with communication. In their upbringing, Americans are encouraged to be active, assertive, and open, and to expect the same in others. In their upbringing, Thais are encouraged to be passive and sensitive, and they too expect the same in others. The
Thai expected the American to be sensitive to her feelings; the American expected the Thai to say what her feelings were. When neither behaved as expected, the relationship broke down. This is an example of different conventions.
• In the third case the black man was newly arrived from Ghana. Being from a collective culture, he was naturally being sociable with Ben. But Ben passed the food to him with his left hand, which is considered rude in Ghana. This is an example of different codes AND conventions.
• Harry, whose invitation to return to China was never followed up, failed to appreciate the meaning of his own communication in Chinese culture. A Chinese person saying that he had to check with his office might be communicating that either he is a low-status person who has to check everything with bureaucrats or that he is not really interested in visiting. Here, the Chinese economist may have assumed the same about Harry. Chinese people seldom say no even when that is what they mean. Instead, they have numerous polite ways of indicating it. This is another example of different codes AND conventions.
In all of the vignettes, both parties failed to appreciate the codes and conventions of the other. If either one had been more culturally intelligent and had acted accordingly, the bad feelings and/or negative outcomes might have been avoided.
How Cross-Cultural Communication Works In communication, the communicator transmits meaning through messages to others (“receivers”) who interpret them. The process is shown in Figure 5.1.
When the receiver in turn becomes the communicator, the process is reversed. The channel may be spoken or written words, or nonverbal behavior such as gestures or facial expressions. Face-to-face conversations, meetings, telephone calls, documents, and e-mails may all be used. Successful communication occurs when the meaning encoded in the message is accurately perceived and understood. Skills of communicating and listening, selection of an appropriate channel, and the absence of external interference are all important.
Cultural differences threaten communication by reducing the available codes and conventions shared by sender and receiver. Figure 5.1 represents culturally based elements in the sender’s and receiver’s backgrounds, such
as their language, education, and values.2 The cultural field creates the relevant codes and conventions.
Language Language is the most obvious code for communicating. In language, combinations of sounds represent elements of meaning and can be combined to form complex messages. Most languages contain speech conventions, subtleties, and figures of speech apparent only to experienced speakers.