Strategies for intercultural communication
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
and the best coffee in Tanzania
What happens if we wipe our nose in the presence of a Japanese business partner, or in our enthusiasm we react too quickly at the thought of a Finnish partner, or too slowly at the suggestion of an Italian partner? What happens if we say "No" to a suggestion of a Brazilian or Indian partner? What do they think? No matter what you present, the Dutch will always be incredibly blunt with you, and what happens if we treat a Korean colleague with the same bluntness? Indeed - due to a lack of knowledge or underestimation cultural differences can, despite the best intentions, ruin potentially successful business relationships.
Professor Erin Meyer was my teacher at INSEAD and she gave a very enthusiastic presentation on this very topic, delving into the dimensions of cultural differences. I remarked out loud that "I now understand why we broke up!". 20 years of marriage, 3 children, and a successful business were not enough to hold together a cross-cultural relationship. My husband was Dutch, or rather still Dutch, but not my husband anymore.
Based on Erin Meyer's cultural dimensions, on each of the eight scales, - which are a
- we are Dutch and Hungarian, almost light years apart.
Of course, those who deal with hidden, or not-so-hidden, prejudices - myself among others - will hiss at this, saying that we shouldn't box. That's right! Nevertheless, there are differences between cultures, as well as just like between fruit trees. These differences are not about one culture being better than the other, one apple being better than the other, it's just that it's different. These differences are due to different historical and economic-geographical influences, and climatic or even linguistic structures. Because yes, language also has an effect on our personality (Chomsky). Even though we speak several languages at the native level, our brain chooses one that it thinks about and works on. This language and the culture associated with it have an effect on our personality.
So accepting that we can be culturally different is the basis for wanting to get to know people from other cultures. Acknowledging that we are not the same is the first step to developing curiosity about others. Of course, this cannot be narrowed down only to culture, I could also mention generational, social, gender, or any human factor differences here. I will touch on some of these in my writings in the near future.
Perhaps the biggest difference between me and my ex-husband was in the area of communication and evaluation. In this post, I will be dealing with communication.
We sat opposite each other at a table. We were both working, engrossed in our laptops. An email arrived. I checked and saw that he posted a comment on a topic we were talking about earlier. "Hey, I'm sitting here across from you!" – I remarked. "Of course, but it's better to have it in written," – he answered. What?! Do you underestimate my mental abilities that much? Or you don't trust me to remember what you say, or even worse, you don't trust me not to deny it? I had such thoughts then. Now I understand why he wrote it and now I wouldn't be upset
Figur: Erin Meyer, The culture map: breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business (2014, New York, Public Affairs)
While we Hungarians and other cultures located on the right, High-context side ("layered", in this context) of the communication scale, such as Spanish, Korean, Iranian, or Polish, we believe that it is correct to formulate what we say in such a way that we do not underestimate the intellectual abilities of the interlocutor and do not start all explanations at the elementary school level. For us Hungarians, it is very humiliating when specialists from "Western" culture explain basic concepts and processes. "Do they believe we don't know this? What do they think of us?”
On the other hand, the Dutch and other cultures on the left, Low-context side of the scale ("unambiguous", in this context), such as German, English, and American, start from the assumption that the listener may know nothing or very little about the subject and it is only correct to refer to the basic knowledge related to the topic as an insider, but it is worth summarizing it, preferably in full and in any case at least three times. For them, assuming that the listener already has this information and suggesting that this is basic intelligence or that "this is elementary knowledge" is at least as arrogant as, in the former case, assuming that the intellectual capacity of the audience is low.
If you come from a Low-context culture, High-context communication seems mysterious, unclear, or ineffective. Think about when you meet with business partners from the Middle East or the Far East. In the rarest of cases, the motivations and intentions of the negotiators are revealed already at the beginning of the conversation.
On the other hand, if we come from a High-context culture, Low-context communication can be unnecessarily explanatory, direct, or even paternalistic.
Everything is relative
When considering the impact of cultural differences in intercultural communication, what matters is not so much the absolute positioning of the given culture on the scale, but rather the relative position between cultures.
Strategies for Higher-context cultures
When working with Higher-context colleagues, learn to pay attention not only to what they say but also to what it means to them. Practically, this is about giving feedback on how we understood what was said. Asking as many clarifying questions as possible, even if the situation is perhaps clear to us at first. We will experience how it is not for others.
Try to pay attention to body language. Body language and gestures are very important elements of high-context communication. If we ignore them, we miss a significant part of what has to be said.
Let's try not to form an opinion at first sight. Consider that our own culture endows us with quite strong stereotypes, which evolutionarily serve our survival, but in this case, prevent us from correctly judging our interlocutor.
If we want to communicate something, avoid unnecessary repetition.
Strategies for Lower-context cultures
Start the conversation with our main point.
Communicate as clearly and precisely as possible.
Formulate the expectations and offers precisely during the negotiations. Don't expect your partner to understand your hints or unspoken thoughts.
At the end of the conversation, recap the most important points and what will come next.
If we feel that the topic we are communicating needs to be understood correctly, we can safely ask back here whether we were understood. We will surely get an honest answer.
If the other party formulates a question or expectation, don't try to read between the lines. Let's ask back if we understood correctly, and ask clarifying questions.
Practice less polite behavior. Of course, this does not mean impoliteness. But in Lower-context cultures, excessively polite, vague sentences suggest uncertainty and indecisiveness.
After the meeting, let's send a summary email with the most important points.
Strategies for Multicultural Communication
Imagine a team in which there are Americans who recap incessantly and nail everything down in writing, Japanese who read the air, French who speak in the second degree, British who love to use deadpan irony as a form of humor, and Chinese who learn as young children to beat around the bush (Meyer).
Well, how can we not misunderstand each other?
There is only one strategy for multicultural communication: Low-context.
In order for everyone to receive the right information and for all tasks to be completed in the most efficient way, the essence of the discussions must be summarized verbally.
After that, everyone, one by one, has to formulate their own task from the project.
Finally, to record all this in writing.
The goal is to minimize the chance of misunderstanding. It is important to lay down these communication rules when the group is created. Don't wait until problems arise.
The meeting of different cultures always presents challenges, but if we approach it with curiosity and openness, with a lot of humbleness, then there is a good chance that we will meet a similar attitude on the other side. Then it may turn out that we have much more in common than think. And our differences can complement or even inspire each other.
Just like the
Tanzanian French press
I'm a caffeine addict and a passionate espresso drinker. However, the best coffee of my life was a French press-filtered long coffee that I drank on a small coffee plantation in Tanzania, near Arusha. This is a mini-farm whose coffee never leaves Tanzania. The area is high, 1300 meters above sea level, and the climate is excellent. However, due to production costs, small size, and traditional technology, they cannot compete with South American dumped coffees, even here in Tanzania. Most of the similar plantations have already been cut down.
The breakfast room was filled with the smell of freshly roasted coffee. I looked around if I could see an espresso machine. I was disappointed to note that we were once again getting a thin shot. As I sipped my coffee without milk or sweetener, a sense of arrival washed over me. Yes, this is the delicious, slightly weaker roast-than-medium, soft biscuit aroma that is me. (However, I confess that I did not have such sophisticated thoughts at the time, I simply felt that I had never drunk such good coffee before.)
I was very grateful when we received a large bag of this coffee as a gift when we left. Arriving home, when I opened our luggage, everything smelled heavenly of Tanzanian coffee.
I've been looking for this coffee ever since, here and wherever I go in Europe, but unfortunately I can't find it. It seems that even the fair trade movement could not save them.
If any of you have information about such a source, please share it with me!
Preparation of French press coffee:
Lighter roasted coffee without earthy flavors is more suitable for this coffee brewing method. For example, coffees with
a soft chocolate effect, such as Brasil Santos, or even with a hazelnut effect, such as Colombia Medellin, are perfect. However, it is much more interesting and increasingly sought-after if the coffee has a fruity effect, which gives the finished coffee a completely different taste. For example, Tekang Tegu from Kenya, whose grapefruit, flower, and raspberry flavors make any French press coffee more interesting.
Grind the freshly roasted coffee, the fineness of the grinding should be similar to granulated sugar.
Use about 300 ml of water for 25 g of coffee - change the ratio of water and coffee according to whether you want stronger or weaker coffee. The water temperature should be around 93-95°C.
Place the ground coffee in the cup of the preheated French press and pour 150 ml of water in a slow, circular motion. Stir for 30 seconds, then add the remaining water.
Place the lid on top of the cylinder and wait for about 3 minutes. Then slowly press down on the filter.
Pour the coffee immediately into a cup or other jug from which to serve it.