Communicating across cultures

Difference in communication style is probably one of the biggest reason of frustration when working across cultures. More than the style itself, it is the lack of understanding of intentions that go with it. Some cultures (e.g Australia, Germany, US) value a direct, low context communicaqtion style where people say waht they mean and mean what they say. This doesnt mean that indirect communication, high context cultures never say what they mean. However, most indirect communication cultures, which are also very much group oriented for most of them, take a more subtle approach, especially when having to share something that could possibly impact the harmony of relationships (e.g. negative feedback, bad news, interpersonal issues, etc). Often, indirect communicators (a majority of people I have worked with in India, especially in South India) find direct communicators unecessarily rude and lacking interpersonal skills. On the other hand direct communicators often find indirect communicators hard to trust because never sure of what they actually mean/want.

In my indian experience, the most famous reason for frustration is the ability/willingness to say no. Direct communicators usually see this as a sign of honesty. On the other hand saying no in highly group oriented (and often hierarchical) cultures, is often seen as a sign of disrespect or of unwillingness to collaborate. What most people, whatever their dominant communication style, forget is the intention behind it. Because they dont communicate the same way, they often start assuming negative intentions from their counterpart.”If I said things like this, this is what the behaviour would mean to me.”  That’s where the problem lies, in my opinion.

A few suggestions that I make to some of our direct communication clients working in India:

1. Sit down with your Indian partners as soon as possible and ask them what respectful communicattion means to them. Then can you explain what it means to you. People are not mind readers but when we explain where we are coming from we can better understand each other’s intentions and minimise misunderstanding.

2. Most of your Indian coounterparts, especially if they are junior to you in the organization, will not feel comfortable saying a direct no when you ask for something they cant do/provide. One way to make these conversations more meaningful and less uncomfortable, is to ask open ended questions rather than close-ended ones. It is also important to read between the lines. If you ask a yes/no question to someone and the answer is not a clear postive statement but something like “Yes….I’ll try my best…” it might be good to probe further This, of course is harder to indentify when working virtually,

3. To be better accepted by your Indian colleagues, try and tone your body language down a bit. Most people I have worked with are not very comfortable with people that emote too much through facial expressions and hand gestures (Being latin myself, I had to tone this down as I was seen as overly agressive, even though this was not my intent).

4. Get feedback from the people you have build good, trusting relationships with. This will show your desire to adapt.

No country culture is uniform, this is especially true in India. The points I have mentioned above are based on my 10 years of experience as a intercultural leadership consultant and coach. They might be true for a majority of people but not for all. I also have indian friends, colleagues and clients that are very direct, but they are not the majority.

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One Response to Communicating across cultures

  1. Matt Halsdorff says:

    Thanks for sharing this! Being aware of these intercultural differences is key & can often be overlooked.. raising awareness is always a good thing!

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