EXPLICIT AND IMPLICIT COMMUNICATION
There is a Western view that individuals perceive something called the
truth and should state it. Convention also prescribes that communication should use explicit, direct, unambiguous verbal massages. But in other cultures—for example, many Middle Eastern and Asian cultures—there is no absolute truth, and politeness and desire to avoid embarrassment often take precedence. This makes communication implicit and indirect. In the direct convention, most of the emphasis is on the content of the communication—the words. In the indirect convention, the context is more important—for example, the physical setting, the previous relationships between the participants, and nonverbal behavior.
The direct convention tends to be the norm in countries with individualist cultures, the indirect in countries with collectivist cultures. Understanding indirect communication in collectivist cultures may sometimes involve learning another code. The following examples show ways of saying no politely and indirectly. In some cases a low-CQ individual would think that the answer might be “yes.”
SAYING “NO” IN RESPONSE TO “HAS MY PROPOSAL BEEN ACCEPTED?”11
Conditional “yes” If everything proceeds as planned,the proposal will be approved.
Counter-question Have you submitted a copy of yourproposal to the ministry of . . . ?
Criticizing the question Your question is very difficult toanswer.
Refusing the question We cannot answer this question atthis time.
Tangential reply Will you be staying longer than youhad originally planned? Yes, but Yes, approval looks likely, but . . . Delayed answer You should know shortly.
The problems associated with explicitness of communication extend beyond face-to-face communication. The use of e-mail can increase these problems. E-mail requires turn-taking, that is, one sends a complete message and then awaits a reply. This works for low-context cultures, where the meaning is mostly expressed in the words; but e-mail strips away the context of the communication, making it more difficult to understand implicit meanings because one can’t get clarification or read between the lines.
VERBOSITY AND SILENCE
Cultures vary in their conventions about how much and how loudly one should talk. Americans are notorious for talking a lot and loudly. But silence can be used deliberately and strategically. Japanese negotiators use silence as a means of controlling negotiating processes, whereas Finns use it as a way of encouraging a speaker to continue. In some cultures silence can show respect. Interpreting silence accurately is important.
Nonverbal Communication RAY MOVES TO GREECE The café in Athens was picture-perfect: checkered tablecloths, white walls, Mediterranean atmosphere. It was morning, so there were no customers. Behind the counter was Dimitri’s mother. I’d seen her in Dimitri’s photos.
“Mrs. Theodoridis?” She turned toward me, puzzled. “I’m Ray. From Australia. Your son Dimitri . . .” She smiled broadly. “Oh, Ray! Yes! You Ray! Oh yes, Dimitri
write me that you come to Greece. Oh, come, come! Sit! I bring you some coffee.”
She motioned me to a table. Suddenly she frowned. “Oh! Maybe you no like Greek coffee? Maybe you want ouzo?”
She was fussing over me. We Australians can’t stand being fussed over. But I stayed polite.
“Coffee would be great, thank you.” She nodded and went into the kitchen. I sat at the table. She
came back with the coffee and stood opposite me. She was speaking to me warmly.
“Dimitri tell me you so help him when he move to Australia, with his English and everything.” She put the coffee on the table and sat down opposite me, leaning toward me. She seemed too close. I could smell her perfume. I leaned back a little. We Australians like to keep our distance.
“So.” Suddenly she placed both her hands over one of mine. “How you like Athens?” Before I could answer, she moved her right hand, took a gentle hold of my cheek, and shook it affectionately. “You find girlfriend, yes?”
This was not what I had expected. I had envisaged a more
formal conversation, at a respectable distance, about Dimitri. Instead she had her hands all over me. Her eyes seemed to be staring right through me. And she was asking about my love life! What business was it of hers?
“Well, Mrs. Theodoridis,” I managed, “I . . . er . . . um . . .” She was leaning toward me, close, intense. “I’ve only been here a couple of months.”
“Yes, Ray, that’s right.” She was speaking to me as to a child. Now she put both her hands on my face, and leaned even closer. “You find nice Greek girl, settle down.” She released me and leaned back, considering. “Some nice Greek girls. You have good salary at Constantine Shipping, yes?” She sipped her coffee. I was thinking, what is it with this woman? She is altogether too familiar. Better be polite, though.
“Well, Mrs. Theodoridis, I . . . er . . . haven’t really thought about settling down.”
“Yes, Ray, that’s right.” Why was she agreeing with everything I said? “Better be careful. Some of these Greek girls, they want big diamond ring, or fancy church wedding.” Again she leaned toward me, put her hand under my chin, and looked at me intensely. “Are you religious, Ray?”
Bugger me, I thought, I’ve just met her, and already she’s asking about my personal life, my money, and my religion! I felt confused, embarrassed, and hot. What to do?
Then I had a brainwave. Play for time! “Ah, well, Mrs. Theodoridis. Maybe I will have that ouzo after all.”
“Aah!” She smiled, grasped my hand again, then stood up, ruffled my hair, and went into the kitchen.
I looked after her, shaking my head involuntarily. Why was she so personal and intimate to a stranger? What did she want?
This case is a good example of poor communication due to cultural differences in conventions and body language. Greece is a collectivist culture, with much emphasis on the extended family. Mrs. Theodoridis is treating Ray like a family member because of his close relationship to her son—indeed she is treating him as if he is her son. And like many people in Southern Europe, Greek people have a low interpersonal distance, and touching of the type Mrs. Theodoridis is doing is not uncommon, particularly between members of the extended family. But Ray, from the
more reserved, higher-distance Australian culture, sees all this as intrusive; in his culture, touching between men and women often has sexual connotations. No wonder he is confused! In failing to notice Ray’s embarrassment Mrs. Theodoridis shows low cultural intelligence.
The topic of body language is popular, and most of us now realize that we communicate, often inadvertently, by such means as physical proximity and orientation to another person, body movements, gestures, facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice. Thus, nonverbal communication supplements verbal communication.
Often, nonverbal communication is a good guide to the truth; for example, if athletes are sitting in the dressing room after the match with shoulders slumped, arms folded, and faces glum, you do not need to ask, whatever their culture, whether their team won or lost. Sometimes nonverbal behavior reveals the opposite of verbal, for example, when someone making a visible effort to control himself, shouts, “No, I’m not angry!”
However, many nonverbal signals are similar between different cultures. For example, smiling universally expresses positive feelings. But there are also subtle variations. Asians often smile to conceal nervousness or embarrassment. Shaking the head means disagreement in Western cultures but agreement in some parts of India. The codes that tell us the meanings of postures or gestures, or where to stand or whether to bow, sometimes agree across cultures but sometimes disagree.
How close should you stand when communicating with others? Should you face them directly? The answer can vary according to the characteristics of the other person, for example, their authority, age, or gender. But there are also cultural differences. For example, in casual conversation, Greeks stand closer than Americans, who stand closer than Norwegians. A culturally intelligent person will be mindful of the comfort of others and will modify his or her social distance.12
Should you ever touch the other person? If so, where, and how much? Who can touch whom, and on what part of the body, is explicit in most cultures. Touching another person symbolizes various emotions and relationships. The most obvious example is the handshake, which in many cultures denotes a friendly relationship—“I’m pleased to meet you” or “Goodbye for now.” In France, kissing another person’s cheek is common
between men as well as women. In some cultures, approval or support is shown by a slap on the back or a squeeze of the arm.
There are low-touch cultures (predominantly in North America, Northern Europe, and Asia) and high-touch cultures (predominantly in Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East). A touch that is meant to be meaningful in the United States, such as a pat on the back, might not even be noticed in a high-touch culture like Brazil. Because of the sexual connotations of touching, conventions are often different for men and women.
In a case in Chapter 1, a Samoan job applicant showed respect by positioning himself at a physically lower level than the HR manager, but the gesture misfired because to Americans sitting down when others are standing shows disrespect. Polite Americans wait for others to sit down first, and show respect by rising from their seats when others enter the room. The way people position themselves has meaning in all cultures, but there are no hard-and-fast rules.
Another common body-position issue is the adoption of a particular body shape—for example a rigid, angular stance denoting aggression or a curled-up, cowering posture indicating submissiveness.13 Bowing to show deference is common, but in some cultures its use is extreme. In Japan, the (unwritten) rules about who should bow to whom and how they should do it are complex, subtle, and difficult to master. Indeed, foreigners attempting Japanese bowing are at best humorous and at worst offensive, making bowing in Japan a custom best reserved for native Japanese.
Hand and arm movements are often used as physical accompaniments to words, to supplement them or to provide a visual illustration. Often gestures are meaningless without the verbal commentary, other than as a general statement of the person’s state of mind. But other gestures have established meanings, including pointing to indicate direction, hands held up with the palms facing upward and outward to indicate defensiveness, and a shrug of the shoulders to indicate incomprehension or lack of interest. Other signals vary across cultures. Some gestures (for example, the thumbs-up sign) are positive, humorous, or harmless in some cultures but are considered hostile, offensive, or obscene in others. High-CQ people tend to avoid explicit gestures until they know exactly what they mean.
Facial expressions indicate the basic human emotions: happiness: surprise, disgust, fear, anger, and sadness. These facial expressions are instinctive and common.14 However, in many cultures people have learned how to disguise their emotions by adopting an expression that does not represent how they really feel. For example, is the flight attendant beaming happily at every passenger truly happy to meet each one? In some Asian cultures, smiling is often used to hide displeasure, sadness, or anger.
Emotions can also be concealed behind a neutral expression. Every negotiator and card player knows the value of being able to sit with a face devoid of expression. Thus, while natural facial expressions provide a cross-cultural code to others’ emotions, conventions can mean that facial cues are either absent or misleading. In collectivist cultures, the open expression of individual emotion is often suppressed because it may threaten group harmony. This is one reason for Westerners characterizing Chinese and Japanese people as inscrutable.
Making, or avoiding, eye contact is another form of nonverbal communication. In Western countries moderate eye contact during conversation communicates friendliness or interest, whereas excessive eye contact (staring) is considered rude, and lack of eye contact as hostile. Eye contact can also be used as a signal: for example, making eye contact with the other person as you finish a sentence often means “Now it’s your turn to speak.” But Arabs, Latinos, Indians, and Pakistanis all have conventions of longer eye contact, whereas Africans and East Asians interpret eye contact as conveying anger or insubordination. Also, most cultures have different conventions about eye contact depending on the gender, status, and so on of those involved.
In all areas of nonverbal communication, the ability to observe the behavior of others, to be mindful of it, and to be skilled at modifying one’s own behavior are key components of cultural intelligence.
Negotiating across Cultures In negotiation the objective is to overcome sometimes conflicting interests and reach an agreement that is advantageous to all. The tools of negotiation include threats and promises, persuasion, the signaling of concessions, and the development of compromises and creative solutions. Again, cross-cultural differences cause complications. Most international
tourists know, for example, that in some countries it is accepted custom to haggle in shops, while in others one is expected to pay the marked price.
WHEN IS IT TIME TO DO BUSINESS? Bill Miller, an American salesman with a major IT company, sits in his Mexico City hotel room, head bowed, feeling totally frustrated. Two days into his trip and with only tomorrow left, he feels as far from closing the sale he is trying to make as he was when he arrived.
It’s not that his Mexican hosts are hostile. They smile broadly at him, take a personal interest in him, and certainly look after all his physical needs: the hotel, for example, is excellent. But they show little interest in talking business. The manager who has been assigned to look after Bill is a good host but is not party to the deal Bill wants to negotiate. On the first day, when Bill talked about his prepared sales presentation, the manager seemed surprised. “Plenty of time for that later,” he advised. “Why not relax for a day or two and do some sightseeing first? I can look after you.”
So Bill spent his first two days being shown around Mexico City. On the second day, however, his host invited him to an after- work meeting with the senior managers of the company. Bill prepared carefully and arrived promptly at the meeting room with his PowerPoint display. No presentation space or projector was available, and no one was there, only some drinks and nibbles. Gradually the Mexicans drifted in, got themselves drinks, and stood around chatting. They engaged Bill conversationally in English and asked questions. But the questions were not about the equipment Bill wanted to sell but about his company—its history, its plans, and its future expansion in Latin America. And they asked about Bill himself—his history in the company, his view of the industry, even his wife, family, and hobbies.
Bill wanted to get on with his presentation, but he did not want to offend his hosts. Eventually, during a pause, he said, “Thanks —I am grateful for your hospitality. Now, can we sit down and let me go through my presentation. I think we have a good deal here for your company.”
There was an embarrassed silence. Then the deputy CEO said slowly, “Unfortunately, I think Mr. Alvarez may already have gone home.” Alvarez was the CEO, whose signature to the deal
was imperative. “Maybe . . . tomorrow? In the meantime, why not come out to dinner so we can get to know each other better?” This time, Bill pleaded fatigue.
How on earth, he wondered, did these people ever sell anything to each other or buy anything from each other, let alone from him?
Back at his home, Juan Alvarez lit a cigarette thoughtfully. The American had looked so ill at ease that Juan just hadn’t felt like sticking around. He had wanted to try to build a long-term business relationship, but Miller didn’t seem interested. Alvarez had seen it before with Americans.
How on earth, he wondered, did these people ever learn to really trust each other in business?
The reflections of Miller and Alvarez reveal different outlooks on business relationships. Bill, like most Americans, is concerned with the short-term, with reaching a conclusion and not wasting time on social trivia. Juan and his staff, like members of most Latin cultures and many others, believe that good business is the result of good relationships. Therefore, the initial effort must go into building a relationship: it is worth spending time to do so.
The result is that both Bill and Juan endanger what they value most— Bill endangers the immediate transaction, and Juan endangers the long- term business relationship. If each (or even either) had been willing to accommodate, at least in part, the other’s customs, a worthwhile business relationship could by now be under way and each could secure exactly what he wants.
Negotiating Styles Negotiation processes typically go through different phases:
• building a relationship
• exchanging information
• trying to persuade each other
• making concessions and reaching agreement15
There are cultural differences in the emphasis on each phase. Generally, people in Western cultures take a relatively transactional approach to
negotiation, focusing mainly on the last two stages. Many other cultures focus on creating a background relationship and emphasize the social side of the situation. In this case, Bill Miller and Juan Alvarez couldn’t negotiate with each other because each was stuck in a different part of the process. Culturally intelligent Americans learn to be sociable and patient in negotiation, and culturally intelligent Asians and Latinos learn to get to the point more quickly.
Styles of persuasion may also differ. In Western societies, rational argument is favored, whereas in some other countries, appeals to emotion or ideology may be used. Western negotiators, having individualist values, have a competitive negotiating style, whereas Asians tend to be more polite, more obscure, and more restrained.
A key cultural variable in negotiation is power distance (see Chapter 2), the extent to which people expect to see power and authority invoked to solve problems. The arbitration model of negotiation supposes that whenever differences of interest have to be negotiated, there should be a higher-level authority figure making decisions and imposing it on all parties. This is often observed in Japan. Another model is the bureaucratic one, which attempts to reduce the need for negotiation by specifying in advance rules and procedures for solving disagreements. This model is often observed in Germany.
There are also differences in the details of negotiating: for example, the level at which initial offers are made and the willingness of negotiators to make concessions. An American negotiator might be surprised by a Chinese, Arab, or Russian counterpart because these groups often start off with extreme positions. Russians are also reluctant to make concessions, seeing this as a sign of weakness, whereas other groups, such as North Americans and Arabs, will make concessions and respond to others’ concessions. Finally, of course, the generalizations made above are subject to substantial individual differences.
One way of thinking about the negotiation process is in terms of metaphors. The very different culturally based metaphors of sports and households can explain American and Japanese negotiations. Individualist Americans are task-oriented, accept conflict as normal, and try to conduct an orderly process with rules within which they have the chance to excel and win, much in the same way that athletes do. The household symbolizes the more collectivist Japanese, who, in contrast, are focused on relationships, want to avoid conflict and save face, and get satisfaction from performing their roles rather than from winning.16 Understanding
your own negotiation metaphor and the culturally based metaphors of others can give you insight into how to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome.
Principles for Cross-Cultural Communication and Negotiation There is plenty of information available on cross-cultural communication and negotiation, from both everyday observation and systematic research, but spelling out hard-and-fast rules is difficult. However, here are some broad principles.
• Gain the knowledge to anticipate differences. Learn about the codes and conventions of groups you deal with. Be aware of the various areas of difference we have noted in this chapter—for example, verbal versus nonverbal, contextual versus non-contextual, different negotiating styles. Learn the prevailing cultural values of the country—for example, individualist versus collectivist—and think about how these may influence the process. What might be their metaphor for negotiation?
• Practice mindfulness. Pay attention not just to the code and content of messages but also to the context and the conventions of communication. By attending to how messages are delivered you can acquire additional information. Question attributions. In Chapter 3 we discussed how we can go behind the surface behavior of others to attribute motivation and meaning. As we have seen, the meaning we usually attribute is based on a familiar understanding of our own behavior and that of our cultural group. Practicing mindfulness helps us to see new possibilities of meanings in the behavior of other cultural groups.
• Develop cross-cultural skills. How much should you adapt your behavior to accommodate the codes, conventions, and style of another culture? Should you try to imitate them or just be yourself? Some adaptation seems to improve relationships by making the other party more comfortable, but too much adaptation can cause suspicion and distrust. Finding the optimal point of adaptation is an art. By improving your cultural intelligence, you can gain a repertoire of adaptive skills and the knowledge of when they are appropriate.
Communication is fundamental to social interactions and relationships. Because of differences in background, codes, or conventions, cross- cultural communication faces many barriers to shared understanding. Language skills are important, but cross-cultural communication involves additional abilities. Culturally based codes and conventions also involve nonverbal signals and communication styles. Negotiation is a special communication situation involving conflicting goals. While all negotiations follow a similar process, the emphasis placed on each stage varies across cultures. The challenging nature of negotiations makes high cultural intelligence a prerequisite for knowing when, how, and how much to adapt one’s behavior to achieve the most successful outcome.